Paris: The City of Lights

My first visit to Paris was extremely impromptu.  One day I was talking to my friend Theresa about her upcoming trip to Paris, and the next week I was flying there with her.  Needless to say, she did all the planning including where to stay and what to see. 

Naturally, for our first time in the city, we stuck to the main attractions like (but not limited to) the Eiffel Tour, Notre Dame, the Louvre and miraculously, we hardly ever waited in a line, despite not having purchased advanced tickets.  I still don’t know how that worked out except maybe it was due to visiting in October.

June in Paris

My trip to Paris this time took place in June as it centered around seeing Nadal play at the French Open.  Not knowing the weather or draw, I arrived in Paris without any specific plans.  Aside from going to Roland-Garros, my goal was to visit Les Catacombes of Paris, the Arc de Triomphe again (but this time purchasing a ticket to the top), and the Musée d’Orsay despite not being much of a museum person.  I almost succeeded.

I arrived into Gare Saint Lazare by train from southwest France after completing my farm stay on a Saturday evening.  With a multi-day metro pass in hand that I purchased at the station, I proceeded to the Miromesnil metro station via line 13.  The metro app indicated a problem, but not knowing any French, I didn’t know if it had to do with the line or the station.

Where to Stay in Paris

After spending far too long underground, hopping on and off different lines to get to another nearby station, with my luggage in tow and now somewhat exasperated, I finally made it to my hotel, Hotel Haussman Saint Augustin.  Upon checking in with a delightful staff that spoke English, I found out that due to the ongoing strike, the Miromesnil metro station is closed on Saturdays.  I’m glad I only had to endure that inconvenience for one evening, which included getting to the Moulin Rouge Saturday night’s performance.

Hotel Haussman Saint Augustin

Hotel Haussman Saint Augustin is a hidden gem.  Located on a quiet street in Paris’s 8th arrondissement on the right bank of the Seine, it is less than a five minute walk to two different metro stations and a ten minute walk to the Gare Saint Lazare (had I known this, I wouldn’t have bounced around underground for so long!).  The Jardin de Champs-Élysées and Seine River is a ten-minute walk south, and the Arc de Triomphe is a 20+ minute walk to the west or shorter metro ride.  In addition, it is on metro line 9 with direct access to Roland-Garros!

For its incredibly convenient location, Hotel Haussman Saint Augustin is extremely affordable, especially relative to nearby competitor.  Clean and crisp, modernly decorated rooms may be reserved for approximately $120/night, many times with breakfast included. 

The breakfast buffet features meats, cheeses, cereals, fruit, nuts, a selection of bread, eggs and sausage, coffee, juice, and an assortment of tea.  The light and airy dining room is inviting as is the small, lobby lounge where croissants and candies lay in wait for the passerby.

One elevator or a set of stairs provide access to the six floors.  Being a light sleeper, I enjoyed the fact there was no street noise.  I also appreciated being so close to tourist spots, yet so far away. One minute I could stop in the limited, yet charming cafes in the area and feel like I was at an authentic French restaurant rather than a tourist trap, and the next minute I was visiting the Paris highlights.

The warm and polite staff at Hotel Haussman Saint Augustin provided me a wonderful stay despite the finicky wifi that required guests rejoin the network every four hours.  Generally, this didn’t matter because I was out and about, but occasionally it was a nuisance to try to look something up quickly without using data.  Honestly, if that was the worst of my experience, then I can’t complain.  I’d highly recommend staying here while visiting Paris.

Where to Eat in Paris

A few places to eat near the hotel that are quaint and good are Ô Comptoir de Sud-Oest and La Traboule.

Ô Comptoir de Sud-Oest

Ô Comptoir de Sud-Oest is all about duck!  I didn’t know this when I sat down at a small table by the window, but my waiter, who spoke English let me know as he handed me a French menu.  He recommended the duck burger that came with onion compote, cheese and a lightly smoked sauce.  I asked if I could get it without the bread, and he responded, “That would be weird.”

The French are all about their bread!  Not only did he bring me a duck burger with the bun, he brought me a basket of bread to complement my meal.  The duck burger was rich, succulent, very filling and quite delicious.  I definitely would order it again.

duck burger in Paris

La Traboule

At La Traboule, I sat down for an early dinner around 7pm.  The locals eat much later.  La Traboule features a chalk board menu in French, but again, my waiter knew English, and he explained each dish in detail.  I selected two appetizers, seared tuna and crabmeat wrapped in avocado. The light portions were very filling, especially with a basket of bread!

Paris Attractions

As I mentioned above, I had a few Paris highlights to see outside of the French Open.  While early June still isn’t considered summer, the last week of Roland-Garros and five days prior to the start of the Women’s World Cup proved pretty busy! 

Had I genuinely wanted to visit Musée d’Orsay, I probably should have arrived at 9:30am, its opening hour, on my first day in the City of Lights.  The forecast for ongoing rain, however, persuaded me to take advantage of the one expected sunny day by strolling the streets of Paris.

As such, I meandered through the shade of Jardins des Champs Élysées and past Place de Concorde to the right bank of the Seine and followed it all the way to the Notre Dame Cathedral.  Of course, it could not be visited due to the recent fire that burned the roof off the cathedral, but that didn’t stop me and many others from at least walking by.

Jardin des Tuileries

Without any set plans, I also aimlessly wandered through Jardin des Tuileries.  I guess I felt like bonding with nature today.  Not to mention it was extremely hot, so I aimed for the shade.  Perhaps I should have spent the morning inside an air-conditioned museum!  Actually, it was nice to just take in the scene and admire the expansive gardens as locals picnicked, read books, and simply relaxed.

Jardin des Tuileries
it was shady behind me

I’m not sure if I am a target due to traveling alone or if I looked like I belonged, but people regularly approached me in the metro to ask directions, and in the garden, two young men asked if I would share my data for 30 seconds “to lock up their bikes” as they pointed to their scooters before they got charged lots of money.  Hesitantly, I complied and held out my phone.

“No, No, we just need your hot spot,” they said.

Not having any idea how to work the hot spot on my phone, I said “I don’t have one,” as I thought you had to pay for it.

They responded, “Yes you do.  Everyone has one,” and they proceeded to show me how to work it!  They conveyed, “Change that long passcode (that was showing in the box) to a number like 1,1,1,1.”

So, I creatively tapped 867-5309.  This confounded them!

They asked, “What’s the number again?”

I replied, “You’ve never heard the song?”

“No,” they responded.

Oh my gosh, I felt so old!  I didn’t know how to work the hot spot on my phone, and they didn’t know that song!

Once they got their scooters locked up, one of them asked, “Wait, how do you know English so well?  Are you American? No one in France knows English!”

Haha, I thought to myself, they probably just didn’t want to share their data with the two young Ukranians that were visiting for some big musical festival.  Anyway, these are the interactions that make travel fun.  The two guys were grateful for my help, and I learned something about technology.  I never expected to have a conversation with two Ukranians in English in France.  Go figure.

Les Catacombes de Paris

Later, I made an attempt to visit Les Catacombes de Paris, but quickly learned I needed a plan for that!  The line was around the building, and it was a two hour wait to see the attraction that only ranked 155th on Trip Advisor.  The ticket taker told me to come back on Tuesday (as it’s closed on Monday) at 9am, 1 hour before it opened, and I would get in.

Low and behold, that’s what I did since online tickets were sold out.  I arrived at 9am on Tuesday and joined a line that was already forming.  It turns out, the family of four in front of me were from Colorado…small world.

History of Les Catacombes de Paris

Les Catacombes de Paris was originally a limestone mine in the suburban area of the city on the Left Bank, away from any habitation.  The limestone, used to build much of Paris, was mined (sometimes illicitly) horizontally along the vein.  Upon depletion of the vein, the mine was abandoned and forgotten.  As Paris grew over centuries, the city annexed suburbs that were previously mined territories.  By 1774, the mine collapsed under the weight of houses.  As such, King Louis XVI commissioned an inspection and ultimately reinforcement of the mine’s underground passageways. 

At the same time, Paris was facing problems with its largest, centrally located cemetery, Les Innocents, that was overflowing with centuries of Parisian dead.  The long-dead were being exhumed, and their bones were packed into mass graves inside the cemetery walls.  In 1780, the wall of a basement building collapsed under the weight of a mass grave.

Both the cemetery and the mine challenges fell to Police Lieutenant-General Lenoir who proposed to move the bones to the mine passageways.  Via a nightly, covered-wagon procession, It took two years to move the bones of over 2 million buried Parisians from five cemeteries to the corridors in the mine.

At first the catacombs were a disorganized bone repository.  But in 1810, the director of the Paris Mine Inspection Service, Thury, ordered the bones and skulls be stacked in a pleasing fashion.  The passageways are now lined with patterns of skeletal remains.  In addition, certain alcoves are decorated with old tombstones, crosses and inscriptions.

Admission to Les Catacombes de Paris

I was fortunate to be the last ticketless person allowed into the catacombs with the skip-the-line ticket holders.  To ensure preservation of the bones, only 200 people were allowed into the catacombs at one time, and the flow was controlled.  I entered with the first 100 visitors and bought my ticket (18E) and audioguide (5E) in preparation of the hour tour through the 60 degree passageways.

Having been to the Sedlec Ossuary, I didn’t find the catacombs as interesting, but no matter what it is amazing to think of all these people being transported from the cemeteries to the mine.

Arc de Triomphe

After visiting the catacombs, I made a meager attempt to see Musée d’Orsay after the folks from Denver said it wasn’t that crowded at lunchtime yesterday.  Today was a different story.  There was a mass of people outside.  Not to worry, I filled my free time with an afternoon at the French Open watching Nadal and still had time to visit the Arc de Triomphe later.

Musee d'orsay in Paris
Musee d’Orsay – line was to the right

The Arc de Triomphe stays open until 11pm during the summer!  As a result, I visited during sunset around 9:15pm.  After waiting in the short line, comparatively speaking, to buy a ticket (12E), I followed the crowd up a narrow, spiral staircase.  I could only climb the 164 ft as fast as the people in front of me, which almost made me miss the pink sky.

164 ft doesn’t sound like much unless it is put into perspective of 8-foot ceilings.  That’s 20 stories of climbing to reach rewarding panoramic views of Paris!  The view from each side of the arch features something special, whether it be tall buildings in the sunset, Sacré-Coeur, or the Eiffel Tower. 

I was about to leave when I overheard the couple next to me, also from Colorado, wonder what time the lights come on the Eiffel Tower.  The answer was when it gets dark which was only about 15 minutes away.  As a result, we waited and enjoyed a dazzling display of lights.  As we watched, the gentleman, with a steady hand, patiently took a 15-minute time-lapse video, during which he couldn’t move. He ended up with an awesome 30 second feed!  My video was a bit shaky.

the eiffel tower at night

After the light show, I went back into the Arc de Triomphe which also features a small museum. It is possible to see this prior to reaching the top, but I wanted to be sure to see the sunset. After a short time browsing, I headed back down.

While I could have packed more in during my few days in Paris, I loved just wandering around without an itinerary.  ETB

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Beth Bankhead

Former public finance professional turned travel photographer and blogger.

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