Paris in the Spring: Art, History, Walking Tours and Memories

Charge! We conquered Paris.

Last spring, my son Colin and I went to Paris– he for the first time; me for the first time in over 25 years. (How did that happen, Life?) We spent five days there, exploring some Parisian classics and some new neighborhoods. I was doing some research for a novel I’ve written set in Paris (Publication date, TBD. But it’s coming out, people, I promise). Colin was finishing up a semester abroad in Greece & Italy and was a willing companion on my book research as long as it didn’t involve getting up too early.

Has Paris changed in the last two decades? You bet. More tourists, more English, and more lines at Notre Dame. There are Big Red Buses all over town, a new phenomenon. The threat of global terrorism is apparent everywhere with extra guards, fencing and check points taking a toll on the open spaces around the Eiffel Tower. And unlike the old days, everyone wears sneakers, even Chic French Women.

Also, I admit it was a treat to be on a grown up budget instead of a student budget. Colin and I aren’t fancy when it comes to food, but being able to walk into a cafe, order the mussels and the steak frites, some wine and pay the bill was a pleasure. (I ate a LOT of cheap Chinese food as a student.)  We had one splurge meal at Bel Canto, a memorable night for music and opera fans, but we’re just as happy eating the amazing  tuna sandwiches on baguettes from To Go shops or stopping to sip a coffee and people watch.

But the most memorable aspect of our visit was just like I remembered it: walking the beautiful streets in the most beautiful neighborhood or the most beautiful parks in the most beautiful city in the world. One day alone,  we covered 15 miles from Notre Dame to the Eiffel Tower to the Arc de Triumph and down the Champs Elysee and back to our beds on Ile St. Louis. All that walking is totally free and gets you step credits toward that croissant in the morning. And the banks of the Seine seem to turn into a giant public Happy Hour on Friday evenings, with squads of students and young professionals setting up picnics with wine and appetizers on blankets along the river or commandeering the benches on the bridges for their parties. It was a Paris Party and the  very best kind of people watching.

Below are some highlights from our trip.

Impressionism 101

My Paris novel has an art history focus, so there were a few sights I needed to see to double check my plots points, but this was a winning combo even if you didn’t have to do research! We combined a visit to the Musse d’Orsay one day followed by  a guided tour of Montmartre the next day.  The combination made for a quick, but meaningful,  course in 19th& 20th Century Art History that both Colin and I really enjoyed.

Hard to say what is more spectacular– the art at the Musee D’Orsay or the architecture. The view from inside the top floor cafe where we had lunch.

Musee d’Orsay

Monet. Manet. Renoir. Cezanne. Van Gogh. The hits keep coming.  It’s an embarrassment of riches here at this spectacular museum housed in a former train station. The physical space is impressive and the collection is unparalleled. Toss in two pretty great restaurants and a gorgeous view of Paris from the 5thfloor balcony and this is a must-do in Paris. Many would say this is their favorite museum in Paris, over the much more chaotic Louvre. We started our visit with lunch on the casual restaurant on the top floor, reasonable priced, solid food, a nice Rose and a great venue. Then we spent about 4 hours taking in the collection. Save your tickets for free entry to various museums over the next few days including the Rodin Museum. Visit the website for details.

 

Walking Tour of Montmartre by Context Tours

A Collage from our Content Tour in Montmartre. Our tour guide Marie was fantastique! I wish we’d done another tour about the French Revolution. Tant pis! Click on photo to book.

I signed Colin and I up for this Sunday morning walking tour of the original Bohemian hot spot because Montmartre and Sacre Couer factor into my upcoming novel… but I’d never actually been there in previous visits to Paris. I had high expectations because Context Tours has a great reputation and promises small group tours for the “intellectually curious”—and I like to think Colin and I fall into that category, at least after coffee. What I didn’t expect? The tour to jibe so well with our visit to the Musee d’Orsay the previous day. Marie, our tour guide, was armed with two Masters degrees in Art History, great storytelling skills and an iPad. As we wandered the charming streets of Montmartre, far from the Sunday crowds, she was able to point out the houses, bars and hang-outs of the artists, writers and philosophers who populated Montmartre in the 19th& early 20Thcentury, from Lautrec to Mondrian to Van Gogh who lived behind those blue doors in my photo. Marie would pull up masterpieces from the museum like Renoir’s Bal du Moulin de la Galetteand show us exactly where the artist must have stood to create the painting. Chills. We also spotted several locations from the movie Amelie, like the adorable restaurant where she worked The Two Windmills—and where we later had lunch because we love that movie. I can’t recommend this tour enough and wish we’d taken another one about the French Revolution. Next Time! Thanks to Context Tours for the media rate and all opinions are my own. To book a Context Tour, click here. 

 

We Saw Dead People

Pantheon

The Pantheon features a series of murals about the life of Joan of Arc. Very Cool,

Like it’s more famous Roman cousin, this Pantheon is a giant domed building with a monumental peristyle but stodgier and with a bit of an identity problem. Built as a church, it’s now a secular building dedicated to French intellectuals and features murals about the lives of the saints and the tombs of writers, philosophers and scientist like Rousseau, Alexander Dumas and Marie Curie. We went for some book research and the Curie tomb, but that section of the crypts was closed which bummed us out.  Even still the trip was worth it to walk through the Latin Quarter, much fancier than my last visit to Paris when it was truly a student-centered neighborhood. Many cafes and shops to explore and beautiful streets to wander as you head up ( or down) from the Pantheon.  And from the steps of the Pantheon, there is a great view the Left Bank and the Eiffel Tower in the distance. For information and hours, click here.

Pere Lachaise Cemetery

Creepy, but fabulous

The famous Parisian cemetery that doubles as a pleasant place to spend a Sunday afternoon picnicking with the family or enjoying a stroll in the shade. I admit, I had avoided this cemetery on previous visits because back in the day, it was known most amongst American students for being the final resting place of Jim Morrison—and that didn’t inspire me. Not a fan. But Colin had this on his must-see list and I can say that this cemetery puts the “fun” back in funeral. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed our afternoon here. The funerary monuments are epic, sad, evocative, significant and fascinating.  Established in 1804 and home to more than 70,000 souls, some of whom are very famous. We snapped a photo of the map at the entrance and wandered around for a about 90 minutes searching for the graves of residents like Chopin, Edith Piaf (Mystery fresh flowers arrive every day for the French singer), Moliere, Sarah Berhardt, Colette, Gertrude Stein and Oscar Wilde, a fan fave. I spotted Pissarro’s grave and loved the fact that we had just seen Pissarro’s house in Montmartre that morning.  Pere Lachaise is easy to get to with its own Metro stop. A fun, free (!)  stop where the dead bring history to life. I hope Madonna makes this her final resting place. It would suit her.

 

Where We Stayed

Hotel de Jeu de Paume

This special hotel on Ile St. Louis is a key setting in my book, but I only knew it from the TripAdvisor reviews that described it as “romantic,” “charming” and “historical.” It worked in fiction, but would it work for in real life?  Yes. It was a magical little 4-Star hotel, built on the bones of a 17thcentury tennis court (Jeu du Paume) built for royalty and set on a picturesque street on the little island in the middle of the Seine.  Better than Fiction? Perhaps.  I can say with certainty that if I’d been here with my husband, it would have been the most romantic hotel I’d ever stayed in. With my son, it was a special treat. The rooms are beautifully appointed with art and a decent size.  The bathrooms modern and full service with great showers and amenities. And the linens, don’t even get me started—they are soft and cozy.  Plus, the hotel comes with a. wonderful concierge, a little bar that is perfect for a drink at night and a dog who lounges in the lobby. Breakfast is not included in the price—but I enjoyed the croissants brought in from a local bakery and coffee everyday while my college kid slept for a reasonable price. You’ll need to make reservations iwell in advance ( I made mine through American Airlines with a good rate.) It’s a small hotel with a wonderful reputation and that means that it books up quickly. The Ile St Louis setting is charming- but there is a lot of ice cream tourism during the day with Berthillion, the best ice cream in the world according to some, right around the corner. One or two blocks off the main street,  there are good restaurants that are for residents.  For information and booking, click here. 

 

Hotel College de France

Our Paris dates moved around a couple of times, so we needed a spot for one night before our other reservation at the Hotel Jeu du Paume kicked in. I found this little gem online and we spent one night there. Located in the Latin Quarter, halfway between Notre Dame and the Pantheon, this was a lovely reasonably priced spot with great service and an excellent breakfast included in price. The rooms were tight and the elevator was tiny—but at the price,  about 120 Euros a night, it was a find. I would stay here again for sure. Loved the street and the tiny balconies off the room. Many cafes nearby. For information and booking, click here. 

 

Our Mother Son Trip started in Rome and Pompeii and then off to Paris!

To listen to the Satellite Sisters Podcast about our trip to Paris, including why the Picasso Museum was such a bust, click here.

To Listen to the Satellite Sisters Podcast about our trip to fantastic trip to Rome & Pompeii, click here. 

To Read about our trip to Rome, click here. 

To read about my trip preparations, click here.

Other Travel: 

To Read My Insider’s Guide to the Rose Parade and Pasadena, click here.