Finally, the time of trips to nearby European cities has returned. Maybe not so great for the earth, but great for me! In the past weeks I visited Paris and Lisbon like the pandemic never existed. I must say, it feels great to have these opportunities again. To have the luxury to go wherever you want. To spend one weekend sipping wine on a boat passing the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower and the next eating sardines in Lisbon. To go out dancing on Pink Street as if COVID never happened. To sit on a plane again… ok, who am I kidding, I did not miss that at all. Flying is still as uncomfortable as ever.
A long, long time ago
I have been to Paris twice before. Once with my parents when I was seven years old or something. On our way to the South of France we spent two or three days in Paris and I remember a couple of things. Going up the Eiffel Tower and being amazed by its particular shape and how tall it stands. Standing on top of the Arc de Triomphe looking down at the craziness of cars below. And the palace of Versailles, because how could one ever forget that? All its splendour, the enormous gardens, its opulent interior. Back then I already realised, the French like to think big. The next time I found myself in Paris was in 2011, when I participated in an EY business course. We spent a day in Paris, working on our case in Montmartre, having dinner on a boat cruising the Seine and visiting the EY offices in La Défense. So when I returned this year, Paris was familiar, but I did not really know it well. Time for that to change!
But first we had to solve a serious moral dilemma when selecting our mode of transport to get there. The plane was never really an option as we felt there were plenty of good alternatives available. We wanted to take the train, because it gets there fastest and is most comfortable. However, even when looking for tickets two months in advance, the prices immediately put us off the idea. We would spend €250 a person on a return ticket. A colleague of mine mentioned she had found a flight for €135. As mentioned, flying was not an option, but I find the price difference staggering. So we settled on driving (with the company car), as that would only cost about €100 in total. Including parking via Mobypark, some sort of AirBnB for your car. And including some stress while navigating the busy streets of Paris, though Google makes life a lot easier. I guess we failed our moral test, but I truly hope that in the future prices wille change to make the sustainable choice a bit more attractive.
So much to do, so little time
Naturally, we were way too ambitious for the roughly 48 hours we were actually there We had tickets to the Louvre to say hi to Mona and other than that just wanted to see everything there is to see. We walked a marathon worth of steps, strolling from the Notre Dame to the Panthéon and back, used an electric step to climb up to the Sacre Coeur and even managed to squeeze in a boat trip. We only saw the Eiffel Tower from the river, but as I had been up there before and my boyfriend is not a big fan of heights that was all good. We had lots of croissants, eclairs and other yummy pastries, ate entrecôte, drank white, red and rosé and even a Guinness. But of course two days is not enough to see all, so I have to come back to visit the cemeteries (though I am not sure I am that interested), the catacombs and do some shopping. Because man those Parisians are stylish.
Though the above might sound a bit stressful, I actually think Paris is a very relaxed city. For its size, the number of people living there and visiting each day of the year, the city feels rather serene. Sure, there are bustling streets and there is noise, but it felt super relaxed. People were friendly (except maybe the waitresses in one of the restaurants, but they were not so much not friendly as that they were super busy), the sun was shining and life was good. Many Parisians chill out in the grass on the banks alongside the Seine or on the many terraces. Of course, we did not really venture outside the pretty part of the city to those places where real life takes place and the buildings are not as lovely. But still, despite all the touristing, the entire weekend felt very relaxed.
Lost in the Louvre
Even when we got lost in the Louvre, and again, and again. Never having been there before, it was the one must-see item on my to do list for the weekend. The Musée du Louvre is like the China of museums: big, bigger, biggest. Pre-pandemic it was visited by a phenomenal 8-10 million visitors annually. No need to say it is the world’s most-visited museum. It occupies 72,000,000 square meters on the north bank of the Seine. The museum opened in the former Louvre Palace in 1793 exhibiting 537 paintings. Nowadays, the collection consists of a whooping 615,000 objects, of which almost 500,000 are accessible online and of which 35,000 are on display. It takes 200 days to see all works on display and that with only taking 30 seconds for each item. But I just wanted to see Mona! To prevent getting lost in the many wings and missing out on the highlight in the end, we decided to aim straight for the Denon wing. This was the easy part I guess, just follow the signs and the people. There was the to-be-expected disappointment of seeing such a familiar image in real life. At least De Nachtwacht in the Rijksmuseum is a large painting, that might still impress you with its size even though you have seen it countless times. Not so much with Mona, she just hangs there, being tiny Mona. Time to rewatch the Da Vinci Code and discover her hidden secrets I guess. Having ticked that box, I was pleasantly surprised by the wing with African and Oceanic art on display. They even had a Moai from Easter Island! We tried to bypass most of the 18th century European paintings but this proved rather difficult. I mean: how many Virgin with baby Jesus’ can one person take in her life? (Having lived in Spain and having been to the Rijksmuseum, el Prado, the Uffizi en the Louvre I can see: a lot, but I think I have reached my limit). I was deeply impressed by La Jeune Martyre though, a painting of a Christian woman floating in water with a halo above her head. Not sure whether she was a virgin and no baby Jesus in sight, I thought it was just beautiful.
The Louvre confirms it again: Parisians like to think big. I love it! Buildings occupying entire blocks, domes, facades with not a lousy 2 but at least 20 columns, spacious squares: bigger is better. And yet it is all classy and with style. Buildings are not just large because it is possible (hello new world), but because it gives them a majestic grandeur. You do no often see a city where everything is pretty (I know, only within the borders of the historic centre), every building is of stylish design and meant to impress. I am not sure what living in Paris was like 200 years ago, but it was probably even more impressive to walk amongst all those large buildings. It is a stark difference with the Netherlands, where (except for maybe Het Loo Palace and the city of Rotterdam) things are just much smaller. Living in a country the size of a post stamp, we are culturally programmed not to appreciate too much splendour, grandness and opulence. Think big: we would not even know how to do it, but the French nailed it.
Wine and bikes
A trip to Paris is not complete without some good food and decent wine. I love the whole concept of ‘let’s have a three course lunch’ with a glass of wine. So that is precisely what we did. Besides meeting Mona, my other goal for the weekend was to have a glass of rose on the Champs-Élysées. In my memory it was a super chique avenue, lined with lush trees and housing the most expensive shops in the world. I guess for some people it is still that, but it was definitely not as classy as I had pictured. More like a run down tourist strip with lots of cars. Nevertheless, there was good food and rose so who am I to complain? Quite big on the eating themselves, French have now also discovered the advantages of biking to compensate for some of it. Paris is lined with bike lanes and you see people biking (or on electrical steps) everywhere. If there is no separate lane, bikes are allowed in the bus lane, which is safer than having to navigate through all the cars. It really was a big difference from the last time I was there or any other large European city I have recently been too. As a bike-loving Dutchie I can of course only applaud this development!
Delicious mystery sauce
If you are ever in Paris and hungry, I can highly recommend ‘le Relais de l’Entrecôte’ in the Saint-Germin neighbourhood. The first night we were looking for something French when we stumbled across this typical bistro-style restaurant with mirrors, yellow table cloths and red sun blinds. It was rather busy but we managed to secure a table as it was earlier in the evening. We noticed that everybody was eating the same dish: steak with fries. Waitresses were walking back and forth with trays loaded with French fries and steaks with a mysterious green sauce. Besides ordering drinks, the only question we were asked was: do you want you steak rare or medium rare? Medium rare does not seem to be a thing in Paris. It was one of the best meals of the weekend, in particular the sauce. Fortunately, other people have unraveled the mystery and shared the recipe, which I have to try. Always afraid of walking in a tourist trap, we were quite amazed to see the long queue when we left the restaurant. And it was definitely not just tourists, there were plenty of French people waiting in line. A (probably not so) hidden gem, right in the middle of the city.
Better the more often you return
Time flew by and before we know it we found ourselves back in the car driving home. Paris is a lovely city and like other European capitals, I like it more the more often I return. It is the same with London: sure there are all the highlights but it is even better returning a second or third time and just have the time to stroll around and enjoy the less touristy places. It feels good to be able to navigate without a map most of the time. In Paris I am not quite there yet, but the river makes for a good orientation point. I thoroughly enjoyed our renewed introduction and coincidentally will probably return later this year for work. In the meantime, in honour of the Parisians, I will try to think a little bit bigger sometimes!