We took an overnight train from Barcelona to Paris (Elipsos Train Hotel).
One of the greatest extravagances of our trip was booking the private compartment on the train. It was so worth it. It is such a relief to travel to another country by train: airports are so very horrible and flights oppressive. With a private compartment, we didn’t have to worry about much of anything. We spread our luggage out and let the soothing motion of the train relax us. Our compartment had four chairs and four bunks. When night fell, the train attendant came to secure our beds with her magic make-a-bed tool. I woke up at dawn as a rainy and green French countryside chugged by us. I jiggled my way through at least ten cars to the snack bar to obtain coffee and croissants, packed up our luggage, and waited for arrival.
(One of the best ways to snag decent prices on train and plane tickets is to book two months in advance. I spent a lot of time comparing prices on different websites. Also, it’s very important to let your credit card company know that you’re spending money overseas, or you might run into trouble trying to buy from non-US websites. Additionally, when you are out of the country, some businesses only take cash and others won’t let you use anything that looks like a check card. Others expect you to type in your PIN. Always have two cards and cash, and you’ll be safe.)
From the main station, we took the metro to the Abbesses stop (As the host of our AirBnB apartment said, “Take the elevator. The stairs are endless.”) Someone had etched Obama’s image on the wall of the elevator car. We walked out into the heart of Montmartre, one of the most adorable neighborhoods I’ve experienced. It is sometimes now known as the Amelie neighborhood (after the movie). Although we didn’t eat at the café at which Amelie worked, Les Deux Moulins, we had no trouble feeding and caffeinating ourselves.
We chose some delicious savory and sweet pastries from a bakery and briefly picnicked in a small park where we watched fifth-grade girls capture boys in a very frenetic game. A screen siren was stenciled on the wall behind us. It was sunny. Montmartre has book stores and vintage shops where towers of men’s hats and racks of high-waisted floral minidresses live.
The Sacre Couer is a beautiful church set atop Montmatre. From the grounds, there is a very satisfying view of the city. Inside the church, there were very busy shushers. Their job is to patrol the church, look for prohibited photographers and say “shhhhhhhh” as they point fingers at people who talk. More interesting to me was the performance art outside the church. Street performer Iya Traore is as exciting as any Cirque de Soleil performer. He freestyles with a soccer ball, strips a little, and then climbs a lamppost while doing absurd balancing tricks.
The biggest disappointment for me was Place Pigalle, home to the Moulin Rouge. I’m not exactly sure how I put it together, but I had an image of a quaint little street with cobblestones that ended in the majestic burlesque hall. Instead, it is a very busy average city street with many lanes of traffic, cruder strip clubs, and lots of identical sex shops. (That scene can be fun to explore in its own right, but that's not what I wanted to spend my precious hours in Paris doing.) In the middle of one of these busy street blocks, there is the red windmill, standing behind rows of traffic and a gaggle of tourists. It did not inspire me to pay over $250 for the two of us to see a show. Skipped it.
We spent a lovely day walking through drizzle and tombs at Cimetière du PèreLachaise It is the largest cemetery in Paris. There are possibly 300,000 bodies inside and underneath monuments with columns, eerie statues, broken stained glass windows, and a crematorium. Although I was happy to view it, Jim Morrison’s gravestone is not that remarkable. The poor monument in front of it is covered in crude graffiti from fans. Oscar Wilde’s resting place is marked by a flying nude angel and is disappointingly encased in glass. People had been kissing his tomb for decades, and it had been covered in lipstick. So this was the fix. Lipstick sounds way cooler than the banal Morrison graffiti. Like Morrison's, Edith Piaf’s grave is unassuming. There are many other historical celebrities buried in Pere Lachaise (See the website. There's a map.), but we could only afford to be there for a few hours. Nearing the gate through which we left was a group of monuments for specific ethnic groups involved in WWII. Although it is a bit thrilling to be at the graves of famous dead people, the graves of people unknown to me were just as captivating. I could spend days in that cemetery, exploring, photographing, contemplating.
Continuing the tour of Paris’s dead, the longest line I consented to wait in during our whole trip was for Les Catacombes de Paris , where 6 million skeletons are said to be stacked. The catacombs were created at the end of the 18th century. Bones from old cemeteries were re-housed in a quarry, and they are spectacular to behold. We spent at least an hour and a half looking at bones and bones and bones in various configurations. The bones were not arranged as intricately as the ones in the catacombs I saw in Rome, but the scale of this display is hard to really conceptualize. It is one of, but not the largest, catacombs in the world.
I saw the Eiffel Tower at night, just as the observation decks were about to close, and there was still a line. I was content to view it from the attached park, where sketchy men were running around, interrupting conversations to sell light-up flimsy plastic towers. The twinkle lights make the actual tower very festive. I’d like to visit Paris in the winter sometime. Maybe, wrapped within a parka, the tourist experience would be more palatable.
Notre Dame also had a discouraging line. I think I spent more time looking at the adjacent bridge which was decorated in locks. This is a thing now, tourist spaces using walls or railings as canvasses for growing installations. People write their names on locks and connect them to symbolize the security of their relationships. We didn’t buy a lock, but we found some cool ones. My favorite was a red “Johnny & Kevin” with a winged heart.
North of Notre Dame is the Marais neighborhood. This is a great place to wander around, looking at both reasonable and more upscale shops and lots of great places to eat. Fancy men’s underwear ads consume the plate glass of a few store fronts. Vintage 80s, including lots of menswear, for sale all over. We had some truly delicious falafel and came back the next night to eat at a fancy vegan French restaurant. I never thought I’d be able to eat French onion soup in a Parisian restaurant because of the beef broth, but we were in luck. LePotager du Marais was able to provide us with such a thing. It’s not a cheap place, and it’s cramped and popular, but very worth it for vegetarians and vegans.
Other highlights of the yummy variety: giant bowls of coffee at Coquelicot and Italian food at Le Coryllis.
We ended our stay in Paris by wandering Montmartre on a dark and rainy night, buying souvenirs such as a Moulin Rouge music box that plays “Thriller,” and listening to a Jazz duo in a bar.
PS. I am angry at the html in this post. I'll do better next time.
Above: The street on which we stayed: Rue Yvonne le Tac
About those snotty French people...We couldn't find them.
PS. I am angry at the html in this post. I'll do better next time.