One of the perks of living in the UK is the easy access to all the places in Europe I read about as a child. More importantly, unlike flying across the Atlantic, where you would want to spend a long period of time to get your money’s worth. Everything is only a short, usually cheap, flight away.
Over the past six years I’ve developed a trend for visiting as many cities and locations as possible, but only for short periods. Usually as a result of arranging a long layover in these cities on my way back home. So far I’ve managed to get to: Chicago, Washington DC, Boston, Paris, Zurich, Frankfurt and Dublin. Even more recently, we’ve discovered that on weekends British Airways tends to have cheap flights to cities, but only if you fly in and out the same day. That’s right, a day trip to Europe.
However, there is the clear drawback that you can’t do everything. Normally I love a bit of random wandering, but this type of trip requires either planning or knowledge.
Recently we introduced my sister to our whirlwind travels by taking her to Paris, to make up for a lack of birthday/Christmas gift. We also didn’t have exactly boodles of cash to spend, so we spent 36 hours in Paris on a budget.
To travel, we took the Eurostar. Yes you can fly, but from London the train is significantly faster as you end up in the city centre, not an airport. It is roughly the same cost, but booking in advance you might be able to get one of their £72 return fares. Catching the 7:55am out of St Pancras got us to Paris around 11:30am (with the time change).
Normally for a quick overview I’d look to the local Hop on Hop Off tour bus. My previous experience in Paris is that they do take a lot of time, and stop and wait a lot. There are two main options, the more budget priced Big Bus, or the slightly more expensive L’Open. The cheaper option has one route, while L’Open has four routes, so you can see quite a bit. Both also offer an upgrade to include a boat tour or hop-on-hop-off boat tour of Seine in your ticket. If you have the time, they are a great option. We didn’t. We had half on one day, half on the other, so we opted for the Paris Metro.
Having mostly used the London Tube, I’m used to long walks and endless escalators to reach a packed train. So in that respect the Metro is a joy. Rarely it is a long walk, and there is usually quite a lot of room. The tickets, called ticket+ (t+) can be collected at counters or from automatic machines (which now offer multiple languages). As we were going to be using the Metro a lot, I bought two Carnets (10 tickets), which save you about 27%. Each ticket can be used once, and only for the central part of Paris, but that includes most major attractions. Do be warned, however, the Metro does have some drawbacks: It may be efficient, but it smells like urine. Also, watch out for cheapskates who try to jump the gate right behind you to avoid paying a fare.
We took the Metro to our AirBNB apartment in the 5th Arrondissement, near the Pantheon. AirBNB and VRBO can offer some good places in cities, although it can be hit or miss. Ours was ‘OK’, but only really good for night.
From there we walked to the Luxembourg Gardens, which are a lovely and peaceful place to sit and eat/thing/regroup. Naturally on the way we stopped at a boulangerie for the first of many baguettes and some eclairs.
We made the decision to visit some art first. So grabbed an RER (an inner city train which uses the t+ tickets in the city core) to the Musee d’Orsay. Why Musee d’Orsay? Well, I love impressionist art for starters. They house a tremendous selection of Monet, Manet and Van Gogh. It is also home to my favorite picture, Le Lit by Toulouse-Lautrec. May tourists don’t put this museum as their first stop, which is a shame, instead opting for the Louvre. The Louvre is lovely and worth several hours (days?), but if you aren’t there early in the morning you will be waiting a LONG time to get through security. Most annoyingly, while there is a lot to see at the Louvre most people in the line are just hoping to see the Mona Lisa and then leave. Thus causes huge lines at the entrance. Plus as the Musee d’Orsay you get views like this:
The best way to discover any city, in my view, is to walk it. The streets of Paris are not exception. Seriously,if you go, pick a neighborhood and explore it. After Musee d’Orsay we decided we were hungry. Hoping on the Metro to Ecole Militaire we walked to the park by the Eiffel tower, Champ de Mars, grabbing food as we went. Discovering Rue Cler, we quickly gathered the contents of our soon to be picnic. Camembert, Jambon fume, pate, baguettes (two types to compare boulangerie naturally), more eclairs. Finally, and several euro’s lighter, we reached Champ de Mars. There we had a picnic under the Eiffel Tower. I know, cool right.
After a prolonged, and relaxing lunch, on the spur of the moment we decided to try and get a boat tour of the Seine. So, a short Metro ride back to Notre-Dame and a brief run along the Left Bank, we arrived at Pont Neuf at Les Vedettes du Pont-Neuf. They are probably the most cost effective and reliably good tour of the river. The river tours are great, only take an hour, and a great way to see the city. In our case, it was nice relaxing way to end a busy day.
Finally, rather exhausted, we walked back to the apartment. We spent the evening watching French tv, playing card games and devouring the leftover cheese, ham, pate and a good bottle of white.
Ok, this was just me, but I couldn’t help myself. I went for a run. The Seine has a great path on the Left Bank where there are no cars, allowing for a great uninterrupted run.
Among the many, many things to see and do in Paris there are three crown jewels as it were. The Eiffel tower, the Louvre and Chateau Versailles. While amazing in their own right, all of them are also likely to be heaving with tourists and tour groups. Wanting to avoid this we headed out early, catching the RER to Versailles. This requires a separate ticket, but again the machine’s translate it for you.
We arrive at Versailles, and using our previous knowledge, turn right out of the station and head to the entrance of the museum. When you get there, you have only one thought, WOW. It is oppoutlent to the extreme. The horse stables alone look better than my office/home combined. We pre-purchased our tickets back in the UK, which was wise. Firstly, we saved some money, and secondly we only had to stand in one line, not two.
We finally get to the entrance, a quick run through security and we are inside. By being so early, while still in a bit of a line to get in, we managed to have first look at most of the rooms. Great for decorating tips (especially in preparation for the inevitable day when you manage to win the lottery), but gold leaf was used everywhere. Arriving at the Hall of Mirrors, we managed to get access to most of it on our own.
*Just a note about tourists in Paris. You are normally obvious to everyone you are a tourist. North Americans have a habit of visibly carrying around Rick Steves book. I don’t blame you, it is pretty good. However, on our train we managed to sit a few rows away from a lovely young couple from Texas. Now I love Texas, my old uni roommate hails from San Antonio and he was a blast, but this couple is why a lot of Europeans hear a North American accent and groan. In the course of the 30min journey they managed to inform the entire train of their history (He was originally from Ohio, go Ohio State!, but now lives in Texas which he went to for Grad School). They also shared their knowledge of wisdom, proclaiming that the l’Orangerie was OK, but you could see it in about 5min and other than some water Lilies by Monet there wasn’t anything really there. My dear sister saw the pained anguish on my face, not turning around to yell ‘Cezanne, Renoir, Picasso and Matisse to name a few you blowhard’. Alas, I did not recite the epithet in my head. Seriously though, some tourists do fit the stereotypes (myself included), and you are a massive target for pickpockets as a result.*
After walking around the house, we then started to visit the Gardens of Versailles. If you have no desire to see Chateau Versailles, the gardens are still worth the visit. Plus, they are free for anyone to access! We passed, or were passed, by many joggers and cyclists. There is even a rowing club there.
After walking around we finally arrived at the Trianons, essentially the summer houses of the old French royalty. There is the Petit and Grand Trianons. We went for the Petit Trianon, mostly because we wanted access to Marie Antoinette’s little village, which looks directly as if it were from a story book. There is even a working farm!
Our train was in three hours, so we high tailed it back to the train station, stopping to get some grub on the way. We were a fair way outside the Paris, so for the record going from the Petit Trianon to Gare du Nord takes approximately two and a half hours on foot and train. Just in case you were wondering.
At Gare du Nord we purchased a few bottles, chocolates and some magazines. Finally we ended our whirlwind trip before boarding our train to London.