France Travel: Paris

Ah, Paris, la ville de l’amour et la ville lumière! Visiting the “City of Love” was one of my most surreal European experiences. From grade school up through college, I studied the French language, but never found an opportunity to apply it. Not only did this trip expand my knowledge of the language, un peu, but it also increased my knowledge on the country of France and French culture. Having more or less grown up watching French educational videos set in Paris, finally having the opportunity to visit the city was like something out of a dream. Plus, it gave me a small opportunity to test out my skills speaking la langue francaise. However, I speak French with quite a strong American accent. Oftentimes upon hearing my broken French, Parisians would instantly switch to English– cutting off any possibility of me practicing their language. I guess the French don’t appreciate Americans butchering their language in their own country, huh? But, you can’t fault me for at least trying. While I did not have the time to explore much of the country of France, my travels brought me to the country’s historic, globally renown capital city. Paris was everything you could imagine– huge boulevards, beautiful architecture, bountiful cathedrals, delicious crepes, and classic art, all of which blended together in an organic, natural way. One can really feel the city’s rich history as you walk its streets, a history so deep that at one point in time, Paris could have been considered the capital of the Western world. While I didn’t have any specific experience d’amour, it’s easy to see how one can find romance in such a city. One can also understand lofty expectations being just as easily crushed– it is still just a city, after all, full of urbanization and the problems that come with it. But Paris can be something beautiful, like a rose emerging from the concrete– a true center of art, culture, history, and fashion; ancient relics and modernity, all in one location.

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Situated on the River Seine, Paris contains a deep-rooted history and culture. It served as both the site of the French Revolution and the capital of Napoleon’s empire. While not involved in any battles of the Second World War, Paris was the site of many iconic images from the war. Photographs of Hitler standing in front of Le Tour Eiffel encapsulated France’s fall, while also being the site of the country’s liberation, shown by photographs of Allied troops marching down Les Champs-Élysées. In terms of art, Paris holds many of the world’s greatest art pieces, many of which are displayed in the Musée du Louvre (the Louvre). Paris was the birth site of the artistic Impressionist movement, as well as the existentialist philosophy in post-war France. Numerous artists, thinkers, and writers have called Paris home, including (but certainly not limited to) Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Claude Monet, and Alexandre Dumas. Today, Paris continues to be a fashion, artistic, and financial capital of the world. But at the risk of sounding like an overt Francophile, I think I will move on to the actual components of my adventure in Paris. IMG_8277

Shortly after arriving in Paris, we found ourselves on the Champs-Élysées, Paris’s main thoroughfare and shopping street, directly in front of L’Arc de Triomphe. This was the beginning of my first venture off of the British Isles and onto the European continent. Finally, I was back in a land where people drove on the right side of the road! After eating overly priced omelets from snobby chefs and gawking at outrageous lunch prices, we found ourselves on the other side of the Champs-Élysées and in the Place de la Concorde, an intersection marked by a towering Egyptian obelisk. On the way, one will pass famous landmarks including Les Invalides, the final resting place of Napoleon Bonaparte. One thing that struck me about the city was its uniform architecture. Seemingly every genetic building was exactly the same height, with the same rooftop and similar shape. This touch added a certain uniqueness to even the most mundane city street, as Paris’s buildings were unlike anything I had seen in any other city. Sure, they weren’t the towering skyscrapers of Manhattan, but they possessed a simple majesty all their own.

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In addition, the “cookie-cutter” style of each boulevard provided a backdrop on which other, more unique buildings, could really stand out. Catholic cathedrals could be found scattered all throughout the city; this was quite different than the British Isles, where large cathedrals were largely Protestant (Anglican). We entered a number of these cathedrals, oftentimes not even knowing their names, which provided a great insight into Parisian religious culture and history. An example of one of these cathedrals is shown below (circa March 2013).

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Directly across from the Palais Garnier, the Paris Opera House (the setting of the famous musical The Phantom of the Opera), a less known attraction can be found. Atop the roof of a nearby shopping mall exists a fantastic spot for an overlook of the city skyline, including a great shot of the Eiffel Tower. We were fortunate enough to each this spot by sundown, and were able to attain some beautiful views of the Paris skyline. One of the views, predominantly of the Tour Eiffel, is shown below (circa March 2013).

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After capturing a series of fantastic sunset photos, we headed off for Montmartre, a hill located in Paris (literally, a hill– lifts similar to those at ski slopes can be found here). After climbing the windy, steep side-streets up the hill, we reached La Basilique du Sacré Coeur, one of the most renown cathedrals in all of Paris. In short, it was “okay” but nothing too special. The interior was gorgeous, as one can imagine, but intense restrictive rules about taking photographs, plus a heavy influx of tourists, ruined any kind of serene ambiance one might find in a church. Outside the cathedral, Montmartre’s height provides a commanding view over the Parisian skyline– yet again, what should have been relaxing view over the city was marred by street salesman who were rather pushy and demanding on the tourists outside. I had heard horror stories of con acts, in which street vendors would literally force their victims into purchasing their tacky items. Luckily, we did not succumb to this fate, but the overbearing, arrogant salesman were a nuisance nonetheless. After our brief stay on Montmartre, we descended– literally, and figuratively– into the bowels of Paris, a sleazy neighborhood lined with sex shops and strip clubs. Here, we caught a glimpse of the world famous Moulin Rouge, with its large red windmill (pictured below, circa March 2013).

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The next day, we were off an a grand tour of Paris. Our plan? To walk, primarily on foot, along the River Seine, all the way from the Louvre to the Eiffel Tower. Along the way, we found quite a number of quirky, interesting shops. One of which was an apparel store, specializing in fashion from the 1960’s. The store was complete with dresses from that era and a massive pair of lips, which probably acted as a sofa. After our brief rendez-vous in the lips store, we ventured over to the Centre Pompidou, one of Paris’s many modern art museums. Unfortunately the museum was closed due to Tuesday (apparently, all of Paris’s museums shut down on that day of the week). However, all was not lost– we managed to find a small outdoor deli to grab lunch to bide some time. Here, I was able to finally try the bizarre orange hot dog which frequently appeared in our French class videos. It was positively repulsive. Luckily, I had a dessert to wash out the taste: a banana and Nutella crepe. To this day, that crepe was one of the best crepes I had ever eaten. So thank you, Paris, for introducing me to such delicious food. If there’s any reason for me to go back to Paris in the near future, it will be to grab another banana and Nutella crepe.

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Our next journey brought us to two more of Paris’s iconic sites: the Place de la République, a square made known to me by the Coeur de Pirate song of the same name, and the Place de la Bastille, the site where the infamous Bastille once stood during the French Revolution. To be honest, I was horribly disappointed– and slightly embarrassed for not knowing– that the Bastille of the July 14, 1789 “storming of the Bastille” no longer stood. In its place now exists a towering monument in the middle of a large square, shown below (circa March 2013). The monument, in a sense, stands to represent the entire liberation movement of the French Revolution– the same sentiment that is celebrated each July (on what is known as “Bastille Day”).

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From here, we began our long– and oftentimes chilly–walk along the River Seine, hitting all of the top-tier tourist attractions along the way. One of the first tourist sights (or, tourist traps) we visited was the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris. Before visiting, I had been warned that Notre-Dame was like “the Ryanair of cathedrals.” I suppose this analogy meant that the overall experience was underwhelming and uncomfortable, similar to the experience of taking a Ryanair flight. Sure enough, he wasn’t entirely off the mark. While the cathedral was undeniably beautiful, with its iconic stone gargoyles lining its walls and stain-glass windows, the overall experience was fairly disappointing. The building, and surrounding square, was mobbed with tourists. When you enter, it feels as though you are rushed as the herd of people pushes through. While the security did not limit photos (as did Sacré Coeur), the amount of seemingly apathetic drones snapping off pictures ruined any kind of religious experience one can have within the cathedral. Even the presence “viewing bleachers” outside of the cathedral stripped the exterior of a certain ambiance I would have liked to see.  The artwork, the architecture, the history, are all things that should obviously be praised; however, the overall experience felt unsatisfying and rushed. A photo of the posterior of Notre Dame, situated along the River Seine, is pictured below.

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Walking along the river provided pleasant surprises beside the towering cathedrals, famous museums, and passing tourist boats. One of the bridges in particular stuck out to me; a “bridge of love”, if you will, covered in locks placed by hopeful couples as a means of solidifying their romance. The basic idea here is this: when a couple in love ventures to Paris, they place their initials together on a lock, close the lock around the bridge, and throw the key into the river– “forever” leaving their mark upon the city and a symbol of their amour. It’s a cute idea, and one that has been replicated on bridges around the world. I saw similar love locks in many cities, including Dublin and New York, but none stood out as much as this Parisian bridge, shown below. They call it the City of Love for a reason, right?

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Finally, we reached our primary destination by sundown: Trocadéro, a rather large platform that provides a “front-and-center” view of the Eiffel Tower. Because we arrived at dusk, we were fortunate enough to see Le Tour Eiffel light up in spectacular colors. Standing in front of the Eiffel Tower is something surreal in its own right. The tower is one of the most famous and pictured landmarks in all of Europe; being in its presence really made me reflect on how fortunate I was to be there. It was a view I could only have imagined for the longest time, something that should not be– but probably is far too often– taken for granted. Sure, it’s just a tower, but for me it was a symbol for finally “making it” to Europe. While the sights from Trocadéro are certainly worth seeing, once again, the spot was mobbed by tourists and pushy street salesmen. In fact, we had to tell a few salesmen off in order to get a little bit of piece and quiet. The long park underneath and behind the tower are also worth visiting.

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Not all of Paris proved to be cathedrals, artwork, and famous towers, however. On the beginning of our final day in the city, we ventured slightly outside the city limits to La Défense, Paris’s nearby business hub. There was a stark contrast between La Défense and the rest of the city of Paris; a separation, literally and figuratively, between the old and the modern city. La Défense is marked by glistening skyscrapers, similar to any major modern city, and oftentimes bizarre artwork and architecture (including a giant thumb, a set of swings, and odd pinwheel structures). It is separated by quite a distance from the city center, but accessible via Paris’s subway system. Which, as an aside, was probably the least impressive subway system of a major city that I encountered in Europe. I found Paris’s subway system to be dirty quite often, dark, and difficult to navigate. This wasn’t simply due to the language barrier, as our party spoke some French, but more due to convoluted design. Perhaps I am wrong and would need to experience Paris’s subway system again to pass proper judgement. Who knows?

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Finally, our last stop in Paris was to the world famous Musée du Louvre. I felt as though, at some point in my study abroad experience, I should experience some real “art and culture” in a foreign country– that didn’t involve beer, rugby, or street performers, of course! The Louvre is home to works of art from all around the world.  There’s sections for different countries and different times periods; full of sculptures, paintings, pottery, relics, history, and more. I can remember an entire room just devoted to images to Jesus, and an entire room of Egyptian artifacts, a room devoted to Napoleon Bonaparte and many French paintings.

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The ceiling art of one of the museum’s many halls is pictured above. Of course, some of the world’s most famous art pieces are also held at the Louvre, including Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. The Mona Lisa was quite possibly the most disappointing aspect of Paris for me. Like any other high-demand tourist attraction, the room that holds the painting is constantly swarmed by people. The Mona Lisa was especially guilty of this; in fact, I had to push like a sardine between a mass of sweaty, pungent tourists just to get a glimpse of the painting. Which, as a matter of fact, is not all that big! It’s size is entirely underwhelming– probably only a quarter of what I had imagined. The painting is almost not worth the mob one must push through to capture a decent photo. All in all, the Louvre was an enormous, incredible place. One can spend literally hours upon hours walking through its seemingly never-ending halls. We spent almost an entire day inside the museum, and only were able to see roughly a third of the museum’s collection. I’m not one who normally appreciates art, but I would consider the Louvre a must see.

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After one final crepe, it was time to depart the French capital. I learned quite a bit about the city. In addition to seeing almost every top tourist site the city had to offer, I was able to practice some of my French (via a conversation with an enormously kind man who helped us with directions), and tasted delicious French crepes (and, not so delicious French hot dogs). But did my experience in France change my perception of the French people? Is it true that the French, especially Parisians, are snobs who dislike Americans? I could neither validate or negate this stereotype based on my short visit; I met friendly, compassionate people and equally demeaning, short-tempered shop owners. However, these kinds of people can be found anywhere on Earth; this is not something  novel to Paris or France. In my experience with dealing with the French people outside of Paris (at UCD or in the United States), I found them to be a relatively friendly and open-minded people who –just like Americans –don’t always subscribe into believing the stereotypes they hear. At the very least, I hope the people of Paris appreciated my attempt to understand their language and culture. 

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Until next time, Paris, au revior!

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