When I was last in Paris, I was 10. I remember a beautiful city with broad avenues and sidewalks – all of which were fastidiously clean. There were people and traffic, but it was modest and moved in a relaxed steady way. I remember my father telling me the people here take pride in their city. I remarked how much cleaner it was then New York City, and Dad told me Parisians take great care to keep their city beautiful.
That has changed.
Paris is still filled with charm, beautiful design and architecture, and a deep and rich history. On the downside, it’s extremely busy, crowded and filthy. Everywhere we went the streets were strewn with trash and frequent evidence of human waste. With the dirt, trash, graffiti and general filth, it reminded me of New York City in the early 80’s. The only place where it was really clean was The Louvre.
The Hotel Atelier St. Germain where we stayed was on the fringe of the Latin Quarter – one of the oldest sections of the city. The hotel was very small but neat and clean. After a long day of travel, we just wanted to take a 2-hour nap before going out into the city. We were assigned room 43.
Going up to our room we took the smallest elevator I have ever seen. When I stood sideways my right shoulder was up against the back wall and my left shoulder was squeezed against the elevator door. If Loly and I stood side by side our shoulders touched each other and the walls. It was a challenge jamming our luggage on with us.
As soon as we entered the small room, our ears were assaulted by the sound of someone hammering and scraping stone and mortar literally right outside our curtained window. Loly went down to the front desk to see about getting another room. Then a fire alarm went off. There was no way I was getting on that double-wide coffin of an elevator, so I took a very narrow spiral staircase down to the lobby where the hotel manager was holding the door open and said to me in an urgent almost angry tone [cue the heavy French accent] “Were you smoking in the room? Did you take a shower?” I said, “No! I don’t smoke and no, I didn’t take a shower – we didn’t even have lights in the room.”
He moved us to room 61, which was slightly bigger and at the back of the hotel. There was no view, but I didn’t care it was cool, comfortable and quiet. I moved our luggage up using the spiral staircase. I didn’t do it again. The one thing we discovered, that we had not seen before, is that the key card to enter the room is also used to turn all the power on in the room by sliding the card into a slot just inside the door. When you leave you take the card and it shuts off every light, outlet and the AC.
It was very hot in Paris the day we landed. It was 97 (36 °C). After a nap, it was a little later in the day and down to 90. We decided to walk around and explore the area. It’s incredible there were eateries everywhere. In some areas, you couldn’t walk more than 20 feet before passing by another outdoor café.
The traffic was heavy and chaotic almost constantly. There are painted lanes, but no one seems to use them. Everyone just jockeys for some sort of position on the road. The young population uses motorbikes of all kinds to great effect. I wouldn’t be surprised if they outnumbered cars there were so many of them. The riders ratio is pretty evenly split 50/50 women and men, and every one of them is insane. They seemed to swarm rather than ride. They exploited any and every open piece of road, and even sidewalks. They moved up between impossibly narrow spaces between cars, and even among other bikes. When the light changed, they’d take off at breakneck speed to the next light. Amazingly no one was killed, mangled or even bumped in all the mayhem.
The first place of note we visited was the Luxembourg Palace, the 17th-century palace built for Marie de’ Medici – the mother of Louis XIII. It now serves as a gathering place for politicians while the grounds serve as a busy public park.
Next, we moved past the Théâtre de l’Odéon on the left bank of the Seine. It was inaugurated by Marie-Antoinette on April 9, 1782, and was the theater in which the play The Marriage of Figaro premiered.
Afte that we went to one of the places I personally wanted to visit – Shakespeare and Company, Bookstore.
The original was founded by an American woman, Sylvia Beach in 1919. It was the gathering place of some of the most notable novelists and artists of the 20th century. It closed during WWII. It was re-opened in 1951 in its current location by another American, George Whitman. I was pretty happy to finally be there after reading about it some 25 years before.
Next stop was the Notre-Dame Cathedral. As it was so hot we were not willing to wait on the long lines in the hot sun to get inside. We opted to walk around and observe its storied and wonderful medieval architecture, which was completed in 1345, but was started in 1163! We stayed to take pictures and listen to the beautiful sounds of the bells before moving on.
We moved back to the left bank of the Seine and walked on the road along the river all the way to the Eiffel Tower. The tower that Gustav Eiffel completed in 1889 was as breathtaking and spectacular as I imagined. Again because of the heat, we were not willing to wait in the long lines to take the elevator up. We walked around taking pictures. We were told that the daily lighting ceremony would take place near sunset – which was at 10 pm in summer time Paris.
We walked over a couple of blocks and found a restaurant of our liking. I had steak tartar, and Loly had tuna tartar. It was flavored differently than what I was used to in the states, but I liked it. We wined and dined, and went back to the park. We found a nice grassy patch in the park right in the middle and settled in among thousands of other people sitting there.
We were there less than 10 minutes when the tower was first lit up – which elicited applause and sporadic shouts of approval from the crowd. Then the light show began. The entire tower was bathed in light and rapid flashes of twinkling lights that lit up the sky and everyone in the park. There was a roar of excitement from the crowd, people clapping and fist pumping at the spectacle. It was truly beautiful.
The sparkling display lasted about 10-15 minutes. By that time the sun was final lowering in the western sky around 10:15 pm, and as it did, the air began to cool and quickly became comfortable.
We walked all the way back to the hotel. We racked up 12.6 miles of walking on our first day. We showered, fell into bed and promptly passed out.
The next day was our day trip to the Normandy coast.