When Sinatra croons about Paris in the springtime one has to wonder what the attraction could possibly be. Clearly he has never experienced the freshness of Port Perry at that time of year. Well, until you personally encounter this happening, it is difficult to appreciate the magic of the City d’ Amour.
I have been to Paris several times, but never in the springtime and admittedly was pleasantly surprised during a recent visit. The city, with mild breezes warming my face, trees beginning to bud and residents appearing rejuvenated, was enchanting, as only the ‘City of Love’ can be.
In an effort to stay away from large, North American hotels, I discovered a small, forty room, courtyard property close to Notre Dame Cathedral. The owner, a sweet, motherly lady, spoke little English, but my sixteen words of French were enough to see me through. Each morning she ensured chocolate croissants and steaming coffee were there to greet guests. Hot chocolate was in order at the end of a busy day.
The Hotel des Grandes Ecoles, is in the heart of the Latin Quarter. I should explain my initial apprehension to staying in the ‘Latin Quarter’. I anticipated noise, partying, Tango dancers and Spanish as the only language, but immediately discovered that my naivety once again blocked the truth. Most European cities have Latin Quarters. Their origin dates back a century or two when students from all over the continent came to a city to study. Everyone spoke a different language, therefore Latin became a common catalyst for conversation. You will find that the University of most European cities is usually in the heart of the Latin Quarter.
The hotel room was small, however, my intention was not to dwell inside, and, no, there was no television. (Undeniably, the thought of not having BBC World at my beck and call was a little unnerving). A forty minute train ride from Charles De Gaulle Airport and two stops on the Metro brought me to within half a block of the hotel. And, best of all, rooms are only 125 Euros, an unheard of rate anywhere in Europe, let alone Paris.
Settled into the room I was now ready to explore. Map in hand and Nikes laced, I set forth. A short, twenty minute Metro ride brought me to the Eiffel Tower. Gazing skyward, along the metal girders of this amazing structure, I quickly learned to appreciate the splendour of its construction. I was surprised that many visitors pass on an excursion to the top. Having come this far I was not about to miss that opportunity.
The view from the top was breathtaking. All the films, travelogues and history of Paris came to life before my eyes. I watched artists paint along the banks of the Seine, followed cars around the Arch de Triumph and gazed along the Champs-Elysées. I could have stayed for hours, but was eager to explore the sights below.
Walking is the only way to experience this magnificent city. I journeyed on foot, passing through the Arch de Triumph and along the Embassy district. I made my way down the Champs-Elysées, stopping at shops, gazing into designer filled storefronts and enjoying French delectables at many of the hundreds of patisseries. The sounds of Edith Piaf and Maurice Chevalier softly swooned in the background.
Sights such as the Place de la Concorde, where Marie Antoinette met her fate and the Little Palace of Fine Arts, built for the Paris World Fair in 1900, overwhelmed me. The Printemps Department store is elegant, as it is set in a historic, magnificently restored building. I continued my trek, stopping at the 850 year old Notre Dame Cathedral, where I was certain I heard Quasimodo calling for Esmerelda. A tour of the gothic structure, with its eerie gargoyles is a must for tourists.
And what trip to Paris is complete without a visit to the Louvre? Having read Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, I was now prepared for my adventure. I found myself staring at the Mona Lisa. Smaller than I expected, my breath was none the less taken away by the magic the portrait possessed.
Side trips, such as a visit to the Château de Versailles, about an hour by train from the hotel, are a must. The gardens, ruined by ice storms a few years ago, are being restored and the opulence of the Palace leaves you in awe. Montmartre with its artist colony, postage stamp size vineyard and Sacré-Coeur Basilica is not to be missed. For the more adventurous crowd an evening stroll through Pigalle Place and a visit to the Moulin Rouge has to be experienced. And, let us not forget the Musée d'Orsay, where one can easily get lost in the captivating artworks of the great masters.
Flying time from Toronto to Paris is about eight hours and the trip back is forty-five minutes longer. Air Canada flies direct, which is far better than layovers (although fares seem to be higher). Don’t forget to add an hour driving from Port Perry. A little French is a definite asset, as few shopkeepers converse in English. Take a good travel guide (I recommend Frommers Complete Guide to Paris) and don’t forget your camera.
Jonathan van Bilsen’s photosNtravel TV show can be watched on RogersTV and YouTube. To follow Jonathan’s travel adventures visit photosNtravel.com