Ah, Paris - The City of Light!
The week I spent here was incredible. I could not recommend solo travel more highly. Truly, the freedom of moving at your own pace, on your own schedule is remarkable.
On my first solo adventure, I opted to forgo the company of headphones or a book, with the goal of taking in more of the sights and sounds. I got from place to place around the city either by foot (my preferred method of site-seeing) or by Metro, an inexpensive and effective way to travel.
The Metro has 16 lines, which may sound overwhelming, but it’s fairly easy to navigate, particularly if you take a few minutes to plan your route. One fare (€1.70) gets you all around Paris and pretty much anything you want to see is near a station. My hostel (Peace and Love) was a 2 minute walk from Jaurès station, and 3 minutes from Louis Blanc, both of which connect to multiple lines. It was also fairly close to Sacré Coeur (a sight you shouldn’t miss because the view of the city from the front steps is brilliant), which I walked to on my first day. For whatever reason, I'd decided I would not be one of those,“idiot tourists” who stand in the middle of the street and stare at maps. Not my best decision. I got horribly lost, in the rain, and ended up way too far North on the outskirts of town in a not-so-lovely neighbourhood. Eventually I gave up on my ridiculous notion of navigating mapless (hah!) and found the way to Sacré Coeur. My foolishness, however, turned out to be a blessing in disguise, as I found an incredibly inexpensive grocery store in the, er, ghetto, and bought a week's worth of food for €7!
One thing to note, if you're from a city built like grid as I am, Paris (and much of the the rest of Europe) has these 5-7 way intersections, with street signs posted on the buildings, not the street. It makes getting lost all the more interesting, I'll tell you that ;)
Personally, I found communicating in Paris to be fairly easy. True, some people were less happy to help than others, but for the most part everyone was really nice. I’d always start with, “Excusez-moi, parlez-vous Anglais?” and upon hearing my limited Ontario-French, the majority of folks were keen to assist. This was especially the case at the pharmacy, where I went to get lozenges for my sore throat. They asked me a bunch of questions about my symptoms and I explained my ear/head pains while flying. Turns out I had an ear infection, and they gave me a nasal spray which cured me in days. Pharmacists in Canada have never been this helpful. My shining moment, though, was on my last day when I ordered, “un café au lait et frites,” en Français. I even talked a bit about my trip to the lady who worked there! She could tell I was a foreigner, so she talked a little slower, but she said my French was, “très bon.” I guess compared to other tourists who don’t actually try, my pointing and gesturing qualifies as good communication. Let it be known that I’d been in Paris maybe 20 minutes before learning a young lady traveling alone gets hit on a lot. Like, literally, every 4 minutes, some Parisian wanted to show me around or take me out for drinks. “Sorry, my boyfriend and our friends are back at the hotel and I don’t think he’d like that very much.”
My time in gay Paris was jam-packed. I barely slept at all and managed to see Sacré Coeur, La Sainte-Chapelle, Notre Dame, Panthéon, Arc de Triomphe, Tour Eiffel, a show at the Moulin Rouge, and I spent an entire day wandering through Musée du Louvre.
Hands down, The Louvre was most impressive. You can spend an entire week and still want more. Admission is €11, and I recommend spending the extra €5 for the audio guide. It’s a Nintendo DS, and you can use it in several ways. First, you can select the, “must see” pieces you’d like to visit, and it will plan a route for you, telling you the best way to go about seeing them all. You get GPS style instructions on how to navigate around the museum, and you can add stops (like washrooms or cafés). Another way is to choose from a list of existing routes that take you to the most famous pieces. I took advantage of the third option, the interactive map, which tells you about the rooms you’re in as you walk through them, allowing you to explore freely. And if you want more info on a particular piece, you just type in the number, and your audio guide will tell you all about it. The GPS was really useful, because I’d select something like, “Mona Lisa,” “The Coronation of Napolean,” or,“Venus de Milo,” and it would tell me how to get to it, while allowing me to explore room to room. My favourite room was Galerie D’Apollon, originally created in the 1660s for Louis XIV, and completed in the 1850s. The pictures do no justice; a definite must-see in Paris.
What I love most about the Louvre is that it's a former palace converted into a museum, so the rooms housing the art, their ceilings and walls, are just as fascinating (in some cases more) than the art itself. You can be a in a room with ancient Egyptian pieces, or pieces from the Persian Kingdom of Darius I, and be fascinated with --even distracted by-- the architecture surrounding you.
Second favourite sight was the Eiffel Tower. The view of Paris from the second level was sensational. I was lucky enough to go just before dusk, and was rewarded with an incredible sunset, followed by a 360 degree view of the city and its illuminated sights. Paris gained its nickname, "City of Light" as the centre of education and ideas during the age of enlightenment, but it sure lives up to it in modern day. With around 300 churches, statues, fountains, bridges, and more, lit up --including the sparkling Eiffel Tower itself --it truly is a sight to behold.
If you've ever been atop any high building in any city, however, I wouldn't recommend the extra €6 to go to the third level. Yes, it is lovely, but not much different from other high buildings, and worse, it's difficult to spot the sights like Arc de Triomphe, Sacré Coeur, and Notre Dame. The famous sites are, however, recognisable from the second level.
The show at the Moulin Rouge was spectacular (spectacular )! Yes it was a little campy (think Vegas), but it was incredibly entertaining, and they kept the champagne flowing. My favourite number was, of course, the cancan, as that’s the dance the original entertainers at the Moulin Rouge performed. If you can afford it (it’s over €100), I’d recommend going.
Sainte-Chapelle and Notre Dame were also must-see sights, but the audio guides there weren’t as much bang for your buck as at the Louvre. Both cost €5, and the information they gave was, for the most part, available on the large slats you can pick up and walk around with for free. The stained glass windows in the upper chapel at Sainte Chapelle are so beautiful it’s indescribable. If you actually pay attention (or in my case, have the audio guide), they tell stories from the Bible. I found the first 3 windows fascinating, but began to lose interest in the details, and found myself more enamoured with the beauty than the stories. Learning about Saint Peter, the youngest Apostle, who is always depicted without a beard, was my favourite story, because I was able to spot him at every Cathedral I visited since. Notre Dame’s high ceilings and Gothic architecture were simply stunning, particularly the rose stained glass windows completed in 1220. Seeing something so old and imagining all the people who’ve worked on and worshiped in the Church was a little overwhelming (in a good way, obviously). It really makes you think about the insignificance of human life --we’re not even blips on this planet’s timeline!
Paris is truly a delightful city, a must on any first trip to Europe. I hope you get the chance to visit and make your own lovely memories!