Photo By: Photo by Eren Gknar/Special to the Town Crier
Paris was hopping.
With most Parisians away on their five-week grandes vacances in August, we anticipated deserted streets. But we had overlooked the rentrée, or return from holidays, at the end of the month.
Overflowing onto the banks of the Seine, ready to take back the ville, residents mixed with tourists on the Metro. We had just missed the annual Paris Plages, when the fast lanes next to the Seine become beaches, complete with sand and chairs.
The typically hot summer weather stifles, especially because the French disdain air conditioning, which is thought to lead to colds. Many restaurants and theaters do offer it, though.
Ads in the Metro stations heralded back-to-school sales, while a crush of foreigners headed for the Arc de Triomphe, the Champs-Elysées and the Eiffel Tower, under construction but open. All are must-sees.
Each season brings different attractions.
September unleashes cooler air, autumn colors and renewed spirit with celebrations like the citywide Autumn Festival of dance, art, theater and music (www.festival-automne.com). This month the Louvre Museum’s much-anticipated Islamic Arts section opens, as well.
Imagine Paris as a snail, divided into 20 administrative districts, or arrondissements, each with a different personality. Addresses are either left or right of the river Seine, which snakes through the city.
Museum lines stretched around the block, but the Paris Pass (www.parispass.com) allowed us to skip the long waits. The online four-day special costs 148 euros for adults, 77 for teens and 39 for children. You can flash the pass at 60 museums and also take a free boat tour. Bateaux Mouches (www.bateaux-mouches.fr) runs the oldest boat company, but there are several others, some with live guides.
Even if you’ve been to Paris before, it’s impossible to do it all in just a few days. We nixed the Hotel Des Invalides, home to Napoleon’s tomb, at the last minute because we ran out of time. We squeezed in the nearby Rodin Museum.
Seeing the sites
Paris originally started on the Ile de la Cité, a good place to begin your tour.
We began at Paris’ oldest bridge, Pont Neuf, which dates from 1600 and leads to a statue of Henri IV.
Cathédrale Notre-Dame, which took nearly two centuries to build, from 1163 to 1345, dominates Ile de la Cité. The hushed interior with its Gothic arches includes colorful stained-glass windows illustrating biblical themes. Admission is free, but it’s 3 euros to see the treasury.
Outside, flying buttresses, gargoyles, rose windows and the 200-foot-tall bell towers evoke a sense of medieval history you won’t get in California. Victor Hugo’s “The Hunchback of Notre-Dame” inspired architect Violet-le-Duc to renovate the old church in 1860, making it even more Gothic.
Walk across the pedestrian bridge, Pont St. Louis, to the other island, Ile St. Louis, an exclusive neighborhood that has no Metro stop but boasts great photo ops, boutiques and restaurants. On a hot day, it’s great to be able to choose between the famous Berthillon ice cream parlor or Amorino Gelato, both on rue St. Louis en-l’Ile.
Directly across Ile Ste. Louis, on the Left Bank, you’ll find the fifth arrondissement, also called the Latin Quarter. It contains centers of learning such as the Panthéon and the Sorbonne university.
Anchoring the riverbanks, rows of book-sellers, or bouquinistes, sell secondhand books, magnets and calendars at their famous dark- green stalls.
I couldn’t wait to find 37 rue de la Bûcherie, Sylvia Beach Whitman’s bookstore Shakespeare & Company, a haven for Ernest Hemingway and James Joyce. It’s stuffed with English-language books, mostly British. Since it opened, the proprietors have allowed new writers to stay overnight in return for working at the store.
Taking in the views
The Eiffel Tower makes good sightseeing for engineers, and the views at dusk take your breath away. Our tour group took an elevator to the first level, where we ate lunch and then climbed the 360 stairs to the second level. It’s a long wait for the elevator to the top, at the 900-foot mark. Gustave Eiffel, a bridge builder, erected the tower for the 1889 World’s Fair. Admission is 13.40 euros.
For another panoramic view of Paris, take the Metro to the Montparnasse-Bienvenue station for an elevator ride to the 56th floor of the more modern Montparnasse Tower, the tallest building in the city. Tickets are 13 euros.
The Georges Pompidou Centre of modern art in Place Georges Pompidou looks nothing like its surroundings in the Marais, with its winding ancient streets. The structure was designed with its functional parts inside out, with elevators and inner workings visible from the street. Bright, primary colors make it look like Nickelodeon headquarters, but it holds important 20th-century modern art by Picasso, Kandinsky, Raoul Dufy, Braque and more. Take in the view from the decks.
And, of course, the views from Sacré Coeur in Montmartre are unparalleled.
Off the beaten path
• Visit the famous cafes in the sixth arrondissement’s St.-Germain-des-Près district. Try Les Deux Magots or Café de Flore, where Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre had “offices.”
• Although it’s expensive, I recommend the 4 Roues Sous 1 Parapluie (“4 Wheels under 1 Umbrella”) (www.4rouessous1parapluie.com) car tours. The old Deux Chevaux cars look like VWs and, best of all, they have convertible roll-tops so you can stick your head out to take photos. They haven’t been manufactured since 1985, but somehow they still work.
We took a mid-morning car tour with a student guide who explained the city’s history in English. This gave us an idea of places we wanted to explore, like the Marais. The company also gives night tours. Our tour cost 80 euros per hour for two people.
• We took a day trip to Chartres to view the medieval cathedral’s beautiful stained-glass windows. Seniors 60 and up receive a 20 percent discount on the SNCF railway system. Chartres is approximately 55 miles from downtown Paris.