Call me crazy, but I saw Paris in three and a half days. And I mean, I saw Paris. At the end of my brief sojourn in that city of picturesque metro entrances and baguette-toting Frenchmen, I could find no reason to be discontent with what I had seen, no tourist attraction I wished I had made the time to visit. And for my first, official trip completely on my own, I couldn’t have chosen a better city to explore. Well, maybe I could have, but I’ll never know now, will I?
My first day in Paris was a half day. Really, it was a fourth of a day, but let’s not be nit-picky now, shall we? I left the closing ceremony – though “ceremony” is a strong word for the pretzel-eating, champagne-drinking, and group picture-taking that occurred after a smattering of two-minute appreciation speeches – of my language course on Friday, March 28th and headed directly to the train station in Freiburg, from which I caught the first of a series of trains at 12:57. One packed lunch, a few pieces of chocolate, multiple hours of travel journaling, and some beautiful countryside later, I arrived at the Gare de l’Est train station in Paris at 4:35. Yes, the times were really that exact.
I found the entrance to the metro station and proceeded to hold up the rush-hour line while I fiddled with the metro ticket vending machine until it produced the set of 10 tickets that I wanted. Following the directions provided my Airbnb host, I rode the metro about 25 minutes to a stop in the north of Paris and walked the block or so to the apartment where I would be staying. In what I believe must’ve been proper apartment fashion, I rang the bell that corresponded to the apartment number and was buzzed inside the outer door. My host met me in the entryway, showed me the apartment, handed over the keys, and provided me with a faded metro map and directions to the Louvre. By 5:45pm, relieved of my overstuffed backpack, I was was letting myself out of the apartment building and retracing my steps to the metro station to take advantage of the Louvre’s Friday night late hours. But first I stopped at a bakery I’d spied on the corner just up from the apartment. There I gestured, nodded, and smiled my way to acquiring my supper: a pain au chocolat. The pastry’s buttery flakes drifted down onto the rather-too-bold-for-Paris stripes of my purse as I wended my way through the metro station, hoping I didn’t have bits of bread in my scarf or chocolate on my mouth.
The “Palais Royal – Musée du Louvre” stop on the yellow line 1 of the metro connected directly to a small but grand underground shopping and dining complex, the Carrousel du Louvre. A few expensive boutiques, a Starbucks, and other pricy, touristy distractions lined the high-ceilinged breezeway and inner atrium, which, oddly enough, included a diminutive and inverted version of one of the ubiquitous, glass Louvre pyramids hanging from the rooftop. I could have entered the Louvre, directly across from the Apple store, but instead I chose to return the way I’d come to find an exit to street level in order to take some pictures of the more recognizable outside of the museum before the sun disappeared entirely, given that I was unsure if I would come back to the Louvre in the daylight before I left Paris (spoiler: I did, twice).
Above ground I snapped the usual photos and selfies. The Louvre is one of the few places on earth where it is entirely socially acceptable to shamelessly turn the camera on yourself. All the other tourists are doing just that, but I still felt as silly as ever – not that you would suspect that, given the number of selfies I take when I travel. But at least I didn’t have an iPhone extended on stick, something I observed far too often.
The sun had mostly hidden itself behind the trees of the gardens beyond the Louvre as I found my way back indoors and to the central space beneath the bizarre pyramid. I snagged an English map from the buffet of pamphlets in various languages at the information desk and stood in line briefly at one of the ticket counters. I had read online that college-aged residents of the EU received free admission to the Louvre and numerous other cultural and historical sites in Paris. Sure enough, the same information was printed, albeit in minuscule font, on a single sign next to the counter, and I referred to it as I slid my Uni Freiburg student ID and a copy of the main page of my passport towards the lady behind the glass of the ticket booth. Rather than handing me a ticket or smashing my hopes, she simply pointed out one of the entrances and instructed me to show my documents to the ticket collector, thereby establishing my protocol for visits to all the other sites in Paris: skip the ticket lines and go straight to the entrance with passport and ID in hand.
So, I stepped away from the ticket lady and into the center of the open space below the pyramid and retrieved my iPod from my trusty bag. With my own lovely headphones – in contrast with the dubiously ragged ones of a rented museum audio guide – clipped on my freakishly small ears and my maps in hand, I began to listen to Rick Steve’s free Louvre audio tour. It was nearing 7:00, and the museum closed at 9:45, so I had my art-gazing cut out for me. Luckily, I’m quite adept at breezing through museums, so I was confident that time would not be an issue, especially since the audio guide claimed to highlight only the most crucial of sculptures and paintings. With the introduction out of the way, I took the stairs up to one of the entrances – there are three or four wings, each with its own stairway – and after gleefully gaining my free entrance, I dove into the Greek and Roman sculpture galleries. From there Rick Steves lead me from room to room, giving short descriptions of key pieces along the way, and, unfortunately, often leaving me utterly baffled, circling a gallery trying to follow his terrible directions to the next stop on the tour.
The audio guide ended with some stops in the Grand Gallery of Renaissance art, one of which was the Mona Lisa, of course. Despite Rick Steve’s assurance that I would find simply by following the noise of the crowd, the room in which it was housed was no more full of people than the rest of the museum. The picture-taking viewers were three deep at most, and I easily skirted them and found a space at the bar in front of the painting to take my own selfies. I’ve never much liked Da Vinci’s paintings, but, as ever, it was neat to behold something so famous in person.
Finished with the audio guide and still with an hour left before closing time, I let myself wander. I perused the entire length of the Grand Gallery and all its adjoining rooms; I listened to a French university student explain the meaning behind an obscure painting in hesitant but accurate English; I re-discovered the sculpture galleries and contemplated some of the marble statues I had missed in my Rick Steves-induced haste. Somehow I ended up in a practically deserted, bottom floor gallery of unique Muslim and Middle Eastern art and artifacts, where I browsed ancient pottery, glassware, oriental rugs, weapons, and manuscripts. All in all, it was a peaceful and happy last hour of exploring, punctuated by my quick strides between galleries and around large tour groups. I was thankful for my independence.
Just after 9:45 I was back on the metro in the direction of the apartment. At the station where I had to change trains, I ended up walking in several frustrating circles, unable to find my way to the correct side of the tracks. In the end I took an incredibly indirect route home, where I finally arrived around 10:30. My host left, not long after I arrived, to start the weekend with a gathering with friends. And I rolled into bed, after reviewing my schedule for the next day and updating social media, of course. (More on how I planned out my trip in a later post.)
Okay, don’t leave yet. Look below this paragraph. See that Youtube video? That’s not an ad. Nope. That’s actually a compilation of videos I took during that first half day in Paris. I’ve decided that I really like video as a medium for sharing experiences; it provides a much better feel for a place. I think you can get a sense of how alive and real Paris – or anywhere – is with a video, whereas still photographs, as wonderful as they are, present merely a frozen image, which can leave a place looking a bit dry and two-dimensional (literally) at times. Anyway, I’ve been taking a lot of videos. There are also videos at the bottom of my posts about my Schwarzwald outing and my hike outside of Freiburg. So, go back and have another look at those posts if you wish. Videos like this will most likely appear at the bottom of all of my travel posts from now on.
Next in this series: Paris – day 1: Orsay, Catacombs, Louvre, Eiffel Tower, delicious food.