"If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast."
— Ernest Hemingway
Although most of my career has been in universities, the life that I've come to enjoy now that I have an appointment in an independent secondary school has some nice perks. Namely, there are a lot of holidays and I get to take breaks during the school year that the students enjoy, like Christmas and spring break.
I planned a trip to Paris during last year's spring break. I had a ton of frequent flier miles left over from my days as an admissions officer at MIT and Stanford and I decided to use a chunk of them. The miles were on United and I wasn't sure how long the Friendly Skies would be around, so I booked a first class ticket from Los Angeles to Paris using up 100,000 miles.
I also had enough points with Marriott to get a free room for a week. The best deal was at the Marriot Courtyard just outside of central Paris, on the Right Bank, in Neuilly-sur-Seine, which is a beautiful residential area just north of Porte Maillot and south of La Defense. To get there from Charles de Gaulle airport, I caught the Air France bus to Porte Maillot, which runs every 15 minutes and takes about 30 to 35 minutes to get to town. It was a 10 minute walk from Porte Maillot to my hotel. Getting to the sights in Paris from Neuilly-sur-Seine is very easy. For reference, I could walk from my hotel to l'Arc de Triomphe, the Champs-Elysées, and the Eiffel Tower in about 30 minutes.
I planned my trip to arrive on the Saturday before Easter because I wanted to find a church for Easter Service in Paris. I didn't have exact plans so I took off walking from my hotel after waking up around 10. I came upon the Church of Saint-Honoré d'Eylan and I noticed that people were going in for Easter Sunday service.
It was a wonderful find. The church is home to a monastic community of women. The nuns were wearing white hooded robes over their habits. They sang throughout the Mass, which was beautiful and haunting.
I spent the next day in the Jewish Quarter and the Latin Quarter. I wanted to go to the Picasso Museum. But, since it was Easter Monday, Paris was absolutely packed. There was no way that I was going to get into the popular venues, including the Picasso, Notre Dame or Sainte Chapelle.
Because of the crowds, I decided to take a train to Chartres the next day. That turned out to be a great decision. I took the Metro to Gare Montparnasse, which is one of the seven or so train stations spread around Paris. There's a train to Chartres about once every hour. A second class ticket costs 24.20 € round trip.
Chartres Cathedral is famous because of its coherent design (- which is a result of having been built in one generation – so there weren't centuries of changes in design, as is the case with other great cathedrals -), and the cathedral is home to numerous relics of significant figures in French Catholicism. The town is quiet and charming and a pleasant change from Paris, although the busyness of Paris is part of that city's charm. It's easy to spend a half day in Chartres and there are lots of restaurants along the city streets leading to the Cathedral.
The train ride between Paris and Chartres covers beautiful French countryside, primarily farmland, small towns and quaint villages. The train isn't the modern TGV. It's old and the ride is too shaky to allow for reading. Yet, it's not an uncomfortable ride. I just kicked back with my iPod and enjoyed the scenery.
When I returned to Paris, I decided to walk from the train station to St. Germain and the Latin Quarter because I enjoy those areas. My walk took me to the churches of Saint Sulpice and Saint Germain des Pres on the Left Bank. Saint German des Pres is an impressive church if only for its history. The current church dates back to the 11th century. A Christian church has been on that sight since the fall of Rome.
I walked through the Latin Quarter and decided to have dinner before taking the Metro back to my hotel. I chose a tourist restaurant across the river from Notre Dame Cathedral. I had a "French" meal that included escargot, steak with béarnaise sauce and fries, and a hearty local red wine.
I've not mentioned the Paris Metro subway system. Paris's subway is a very efficient system that goes everywhere. It's very easy to navigate. The longest I had to wait for a subway train was about three minutes. A one-way fair costs 1.40 €, regardless of the distance or number of transfers.
Just east of Neuilly-sur-Seine is Levallois-Perret. Levallois has a more urban feel and is packed with restaurants. I went to a casual Italian restaurant one night for dinner and took an espresso one morning at a wonderful crêperie. I liked Levallois because it "felt" more authentically French than other parts of Paris I've been in. No one at the two restaurants I went to spoke English, which was great because it forced me to understand menus and to attempt to use French. Also, since Levallois is off the tourist path, eating there was less expensive.
Speaking of cost, Americans will feel the impact of a weakened dollar. The buying power of the dollar is puny compared to other times I've been to Europe. Honestly, this was the first time that I've felt that Europe was exceptionally expensive.
That being said, Paris is a wonderful place for holiday, and staying outside of central Paris is convenient because of the Metro which connects everything. The Paris Metro is easy to use and takes only minutes to figure out. However, it's important to keep alert for pickpockets.
Even though it rained in Paris every day on this trip, I didn't feel inconvenienced or bothered by the weather. I had thought to bring an umbrella with me and I kept it with me everywhere I went. I think that part of the satisfaction I felt is that Paris is Paris.
Take this as a hearty recommendation to visit Paris in the early spring before the summer crowds arrive, and discover neighborhoods outside of the city center.