Springtime in Paris Hard to Beat
Posted June 11, 2007 2:02 p.m. EDT
Updated June 11, 2007 3:21 p.m. EDT
PARIS — Not to contradict a song made famous by the likes of Count Basie, Billie Holliday and Doris Day, but April in Paris is one month too early.
Mild temperatures, sunny skies and sunsets after 9 p.m. combine to make May the optimal time to visit the City of Lights.
On a recent trip to Paris, my family was able to get to almost everything on our "wanna see" list in five frenetic days of sightseeing, with plenty of time to spare to visit with relatives and to take a side trip to Provins, a walled, medieval village about an hour southeast of the city.
Paris features so many unique neighborhoods and attractions that you have to go after it like a baguette -- take small bites and take time to savor the flavor of each bite. Buying a Michelin "Green Guide" to Paris before your trip helps you learn more about the various parts of the city, including Metro stops and restaurants in each neighborhood.
Another worthwhile investment is a small French-English dictionary. A little French goes a long way. Many Parisians speak at least some English, and making an effort to handle their language will help in meeting them halfway.
And a third must-have for the trip is a weekly rail pass, also known as a Carte Orange. They cost about 30 euros for the week and help you speed through regional rail and Metro stations. You can pick up a Metro map when your buy the pass or just use the maps that are located throughout the city.
Speaking of euros, beware of the exchange rate when heading to France -- or several other European countries. Exchange rates are much different now than years ago with the franc. Rather than getting four or five francs to the dollar, you're lucky to get 70 cents on the dollar when exchanging for euros. Just try not to think of the U.S. prices when ordering in a cafe and focus instead on the food and atmosphere.
The highlights of our recent visit can be broken down into three distinct groups: museums, churches and monuments. Although wandering the narrow, cobbled streets in old neighborhoods and finding a nice, quiet cafe for some food and people-watching are treats, too.
Any list of French museums has to begin with the Louvre. The former fortress-turned-palace stretches for blocks along the River Seine and contains collections of art dating hundreds to thousands of years old. Someone could literally spend a few days inside without seeing the same thing twice.
Follow the crowds inside to get a glimpse of the Mona Lisa or the Venus de Milo, but the jostling is pretty intense around these noted works, and a brief glimpse is about all you really get. More relaxed viewing can be found in collections like the Greek and Roman antiquities. And a really interesting alternative is down in the "basement," where some of the medieval foundation of the has been uncovered.
The royal palace at Versailles, about 15 miles west of Paris, is another "museum" worth spending a day or two to visit. The symbol of absolute monarchy in France, the estate was home to kings from Louis XIII to Louis XVI, whose queen, Marie Antoinette, added her own embellishments, including her own quarters amid the expansive gardens.
The opulence of the palace -- highlighted by the Hall of Mirrors, designed to reflect the setting sun -- is rivaled only by its sheer size. A seemingly endless number of bedrooms, plus a chapel and concert hall are all inside, but not a single bathroom. And the surrounding gardens and forests literally stretch for miles, offering a sense of serenity and solitude amid the thousands of daily visitors.
Paris has numerous other museums worth visiting, from those dedicated to the works of Picasso and Rodin to one in the Latin Quarter that combines the ruins of Roman baths with medieval works of art to the Georges Pompidou Centre, which exhibits modern art inside and wild and colorful architecture outside. But a personal favorite is the Orsay. A former train station located across the Seine from the Louvre, the museum has an airy feel inside because of its windows and open architecture that swallows up the crows inside and makes you feel like your viewing the masters of Impressionism by yourself.
The Cathedral of Notre-Dame, world-renowned for its Gothic design, stained glass and gargoyles, is literally at the heart of Paris. All road distances in France are measured from a point in the plaza in front of the cathedral. Its location at the east end of an island in the Seine has been the site of religious ceremonies for more than 2,000 years, and the cathedral itself has hosted coronations and papal visits for centuries.
Notre-Dame's exterior features dozens of religious sculptures, while the walls inside are ringed with chapels to various saints. The north, south and west sides of the cathedral are dominated by large stained-glass "rose" windows that almost fight to bring light into the dark, quiet, imposing structure.
A few blocks from Notre Dame sits Sainte-Chappelle, which is about 80 years older than the cathedral but far less well known. That's a shame because the church is breathtaking. Built by Louis IX -- the real St. Louis -- to house holy relics, the Gothic church features 16 stained-glass windows that depict various sections of the Bible. The windows stretch almost from floor to ceiling, making it appear the church is built of glass instead of stone.
A third church of note is Sacre-Coeur -- the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart -- atop Montmartre. The white, Byzantine-looking church offers a commanding view of Paris from its hilltop location, although getting there requires a bit of a pilgrim's enthusiasm -- several series of steps must be climbed to ascend the hill. The interior of the cathedral reflects the architecture, with bright mosaics lining the walls, almost like icons in Eastern Christian religions.
The surrounding Montmartre neighborhood offers a stark contrast to the cathedral. Home to dance halls like the Moulin Rouge and to artists a century ago, the narrow streets of the hillside are still lined with art shops and other retailers capitalizing on the area's notoriety.
Speaking of icons, the Eiffel Tower has to rank among the most recognized monuments in the world. Built for an1889 exposition, the tower is a feat of engineering and tensile strength. Up close, it resembles a complex spider's web of metal beams bolted together by millions of rivets.
The lines to ride the elevator up the tower are long, but the view from above is worth the wait. There are three levels to the tower, but much to my children's consternation, we decided the first level -- above where the four legs of the tower join together -- was high enough. There's also a post office, a gift shop and a restaurant on that level for people who want a special keepsake from their visit.
Like the Eiffel Tower, the Champs-Elysees is among the most well-known place names across the globe. The wide avenue is lined with trees and cafes on both sides -- not to mention high-priced retailers like Cartier, Louis Vuitton and Mercedes -- and throngs of people jam the sidewalks to stroll, window-shop or while away the time at a cafe table.
Place de la Concorde sits at one end of the Champs-Elysees. The site of the beheadings of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette during the French Revolution, the busy square now features fountains, statues in honor of several French cities and a massive granite obelisk. The obelisk, which comes from the ruins of a temple at Luxor, Egypt, is oriented in such a way that it acts as a giant sundial.
The Arc de Triomphe, at the other end of the Champs-Elysees, is actually a hub for 12 intersecting streets. Traffic is so hectic that getting to the arch involves going through a tunnel. The 164-foot arch is equally impressive when viewed up close as it is when viewed down the Champs-Elysees. The sculptures carved into the four sides of the arch reflect battles fought by French forces through the centuries, and a flame burns underneath at the country's Tomb of the Unknowns.
For a different view of many of these sites, from the Eiffel Tower to the Louvre to Notre Dame, try taking a boat tour along the Seine. Several companies offer tours, and sitting in the sunshine and feeling the breeze off the river make a boat trip an enjoyable way to see Paris.
But then again, any sightseeing in Paris is enjoyable.