As a student, I lived in Paris for six months in 1999 and as a teacher I was a staff member on four coach trips there, so I’ve some experience of the city and of young people. I’d offered to my brother to take the oldest nephew for a half term trip there at some point. The initial plan was when he was 11, and Nectar points were converted to Eurostar tickets for October 2019, but some pandemic wave or other prevented this from happening. It’s just been possible now to reconvert Eurostar vouchers to tickets and try for a February dash.
And it was EPIC. The nephew was supremely well behaved and adventurous and endured an extremely dense itinerary across Paris over four days. We visited the old classics and I also included a huge range of things I’ve wanted to do for years but never quite got around to.
I am writing up the list here as much as an aide-mémoire for myself because we got through so much… and there are two more nephews…
Sunday arrival, after dark
Drop bags off at hotel, chosen for cheapness and proximity to Gare du Nord. This was an Ibis (an old favourite of mine, reasonably priced, huge continental breakfast). We used Ibis Gare du Nord, 122 rue Lafayette, which turned out to be ideal. 300m from Gare du Nord which meant we could get all over Paris – walk to Sacré Coeur, take RER to catacombes and Stade de France. Just a few paces down rue Lafayette is the Église St Vincent de Paul which was JUST beginning to have cherry blossom, and the Métro station Poissonière which goes directly to the Louvre and from there, the ultimate touristy destinations of Métro line 1. A sneaky building over the road is actually a métro vent hiding behind a façade.
Immediately after dropping bags off we went for a walk. My thought was that we’d been sat down and masked for five hours at St Pancras and on the train, so a bit of time stretching legs and breathing normally was required. The hotel is about 3 miles from the Arc de Triomphe with interesting things en route and a nice chance to absorb what the city feels like and the styles of buildings. So off we set.
At this point we also noticed how many awesome French cafés and restaurants there were right outside the hotel with also some Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Italian choices.
We walked almost as far as Opéra Garnier and stopped for dinner at Restaurant Le Royal, 8 rue Lafayette… including frogs legs, which nephew bravely tried. To be honest, I’d never had these before and probably wouldn’t have ordered them or been brave enough to eat them myself if it hadn’t been for showing off. But they are basically garlicky chicken wings, although they are very obviously very froggy in appearance. My main was a souris d’agneau (lamb mouse? it was a shank!) with a ratatouille and a cheese burger for nephew.
The waiters here were extremely friendly and helpful, and chatty. We bumped into one waitress outside in a fag break and she persuaded us inside. Paris waiters are notorious for brusqueness if not rudeness, and for switching to English at the merest hint of an accent in your French. Many friends of mine have felt slightly snubbed because waiters essentially refuse to speak French to them. Despite a French degree and a decade teaching French, I am no exception and almost all Paris waiters switch to English for me too. I assume this is just because they are absolutely working at full tilt and rushed off their feet and it is simply quicker to switch to English and more likely they manage to bring the food you actually want without the complication of changes. Perhaps because we arrived at this café so late after most people had gone, the waiters had more time to be friendly and chatty and help the nephew practise his French. Which was lovely. They were also amazed we had walked “so far” – about 2km at this point.
On past the Opéra building with a mini lecture about fly towers towards the Arc de Triomphe and our first view of the Eiffel Tower in night mode with its search light. The plan had been to climb the arch for a night view of the city but we arrived too late in the end and the ticket office was already closed. Instead we went down into the métro, bought a Paris Visite ticket each (13 year olds count as adults here…) and planned a route home to bed.
Since the route back to our hotel involved changing at the Louvre stop anyway, we got out there and went upstairs to look at the pyramid and the Louve palace from the outside.
Back to the hotel for bed… breakfast…
Sunday – Fitbit – 18,090 steps, 68 flights of stairs, 13.14km
Day 2 – Monday
The only trip I had planned from the UK in advance was a guided tour of the Stade de France, as nephew is v interested in football. Unfortunately there weren’t any guided tours in English in the time we were staying there so we had to do a tour in French with me translating highlights to nephew as and when required. I was highly dubious of this part of the trip, but in fact it was fascinating. Even though I have no interest in football, the infrastructure elements were really amazing and the tour really pushed my “finding out how things work” buttons. On the way we were shown cranes that turned out to be the construction of the 2024 Olympic pool and village so perhaps the next nephews will get some very different views! The visit includes the pitch, the on-site jail (!) the players’ changing rooms, the presidential suite and a special look at how the stands can be retracted – which takes 6 days to do!
Train back to the hotel and a walk up the many many steps to Sacré Coeur from the side. First through the wedding dress district of Montmartre – many dress shops and a few groomsmen outfitters too. Up the top for savoury crêpes in the place du Tertre and a strange encounter with a street artist.
Down the funicular (why down?? up would have made more sense!) which we did free with our Paris Visite métro cards but would have been free anyway as for some reason the barriers were unstaffed and open. A few more streets to the nearest métro station and away to the Grande Arche de la Défense.
I lived in Paris for half a year and used Métro Line 1 pretty much daily, but I only ever knew Défense as the terminus of the line, so this was the first time I visited. It’s quite impressive. Unfortunately the roof visit is closed on Mondays. So we just wandered around the huge plaza and gawped a bit before heading back onto the métro to the Arc de Triomphe which this time was open, so we climbed the steps to the top. Legs seriously hurty by now after 3km of walking around the stadium and climbing stair cases to Montmartre as well as the enormous spiral staircase here.
Views, selfies, a grey sky view of the Eiffel Tower. Back down the steps and onto the Métro. I wanted to see if the ice rink was outside the Hôtel de Ville again this year (just to look, not to fall down on) and I also wanted to wander around the amazing department store BHV. Nephew was dubious why anyone would ever want to go shopping but was a convert once he discovered there was pretty much a whole floor of computers and phones…
It turns out the huge square in front of the Hôtel de Ville de Paris is actually currently a vaccination centre for Covid. Sign of the times!
At this point we got back on the métro (so helpful to have unlimited travel during the whole stay thanks to Paris Visite tickets) back to the hotel and out again to look for a café for the evening. This evening I was less decisive than Sunday night and back to my old habit of wandering for miles past many places that would have been fine. Part of the excuse was actually nephew quite fussy on food front so we did check menus before going in and eliminated a few ideas. One pizza place looked ideal but was rammed so we wandered, and turned a few streets and let ourselves get delightfully lost – one of my favourite Paris activities normally but perhaps not ideal late at night with a young teen and when starving! We eventually found Pizza Capri, 49 rue Richer, late in their service and for a while had the place to ourselves. Another excellent, very friendly waitress, jokingly bullying nephew into ordering his own food and saying some whole French sentences. Strangest nephew question of the whole trip “what’s a tiramisu?”
On our way home trying to get unturned around, discovered our hotel is also very easy walking distance from Folies Bergère…
Monday – Fitbit says 26,955 steps, 136 flights of stairs, 19.57km, 4,500 calories expended
Day 3 – Tuesday
The night before I had booked more tickets. This seems much more important in covid times than normal. The weather looked a bit grim for Tuesday so I tried to switch my mental plan around a little and go the Louvre on a grey day and save climbing the Eiffel Tower for the following, sunnier day. This turned out not to be possible as the Louvre was sold out for Tuesday. Well worth bearing this in mind – book ahead and book more than a day ahead.
So we ended up heading for the Eiffel Tower anyway, definitely an expected highlight for nephew. I have only ever gone up the Eiffel Tower by climbing the stairs of Level 1 and 2 – and you actually cannot prebook tickets for this. There were no queues to speak of when we eventually got there.
I planned the day with a bit of a walk to start with because I wanted to see my old studenty neighbourhood. (I had an amazing address in the 7th because I had a crummy maid’s apartment without my own bathroom.) We took the métro to Place de Concorde and walked over the Alexandre III bridge down to les Invalides, past my old address on av de la Motte Picquet and my old stamping ground the rue Cler. Then on to École Militaire to walk the Champ de Mars to the Eiffel tower. A couple of KM but oh, our legs at this point after days of walking and stairs!
Opposite the old École Militaire is currently a wood and polythene building called the Grand Palais Éphemère, which was a surprise to me… Googling at home, I discovered it’s a temporary building hosting things from the Grand Palais (I’ve never been there…) which is being refurbished ahead of the Olympics, and the temporary building itself will be an Olympic venue before being removed at the end 2024. Remember the Eiffel Tower was also intended as a temporary building but somehow has lasted since 1889!
Up the Eiffel Tower stairs. This was harder on the old legs than the last time I did it with a school party! The new exclusion zone around the pillars of the tower worked fine but there were serious bag checks and airport-style metal detectors to get through first. So, we climbed the stairs, admired the view and I used the facilities there for the first time in all my years visiting. A lift to the very top, the photos and a new one for me – an attempt at video calling home. It didn’t quite work as it was busy and windy at the top, but the call was placed from beneath.
Down the lift and stairs again, much easier than up! And across the road for a very trashy snack lunch from a street stall selling French hotdogs and other snackery. Then down the steps to the Eiffel Tower stop on all the various boat tours.
There are many options and most are fine with turn up and go plans. I chose Batobus as it looked like it was the next one due to arrive and it runs a plan like many cities have open-top sightseeing buses – you can hop on and off and your ticket is valid all day. In the end we just sat and did a complete tour, happy to see the sights and happy to be sitting down and resting our legs for an hour. I did mentally pencil in the sculpture garden just before the turning around stage for something that would be interesting to do on a subsequent trip.
Nephew had been interested in the Statue of Liberty and the fact that she was a gift from France to the United States. I was able to share that there is a small copy of her on the Seine – in fact we saw it from the Eiffel Tower – and that she is held up by a miniature Eiffel Tower structure inside her designed by the same Gustave Eiffel. Unfortunately the boat tour didn’t go as far as that on its return, so visiting Madame Liberté is also something pencilled in for a future trip.
Batobus eventually returned us to our starting point on the quai under the Eiffel tower and we got out and walked along the river bank to another old favourite of mine, the Sewer Museum. You can walk down a set of concrete steps to a mix of tunnels, some of which are bespoke museum and some of which are working sewer tunnels with actual sewage flowing down them to the huge riverside collection tunnel which takes most Paris effluent for treatment outside and downhill from central Paris. (Most, because like London, in stormy weather the whole system is a little overwhelmed and just dumps into the river.) Most of Paris has a network of sewage tunnels that follow the street pattern even lower down than the métro tunnels. If you want to work up a detailed understanding of sewage you can spend half a day there reading all the panels (they will give you a printed English translation of everything if you ask) but you can get a basic understanding and walk along some mock alleyways in an hour.
We were ahead of my mental schedule when we left the tunnels so we continued our walk along the river, past the American Church and a bunch of embassies in search of the Musée Rodin. I had booked tickets for this in the expectation of doing it the following day when we were planning to see a bunch of different museums, but a quirk of the prebooked ticket is that it was valid for ANY day after purchase, not a specific day or time. This visit was more for me than the nephew – despite living very close to its beautiful location near les Invalides, I had never actually visited. I’ve never been inside the Invalides either! The museum has many of his sculptures including many different versions of The Thinker, the Burghers of Calais and the Gates of Hell, many outside in a well tended garden as well as a large house of statue and paintings. One of these paintings is Van Gogh’s Père Tanguy. I was unable to get nephew to recreate the pose of any of the statues and he was previously not aware of either Rodin or Van Gogh so wasn’t super interested.
Our next stop was a return to the Grande Arche de la Défense and this time it was open to the public. At the foot of the tower was a ticket booth with a really chatty saleswoman and somehow a conversation started on the back of her asking me which départment of France I was from (this is a frequent question at venues like this as they track visitor origin data). We ended up each showing off in various languages, so I gave her my best Italian attempt, due biglietti per favore, and she gave me a long blast of response in Russian which I could understand none of!
Unlike the leg challenge of the Eiffel Tower, the only way to the top of the Grande Arche was by a set of amazing lifts that only had buttons for level 3 and level 35. The view at the top is good, much of it beyond actual Paris into Grand Paris. There are the skyscapers that are banned from actual Paris, including one still in construction. I’d never been up here before so the enormous exhibition space was a surprise. When we were there it was an A-Z retrospective of a paparazzo photographer Daniel Angeli – the one who took the famous photo of the Duchess of York with her foot in a Texan’s mouth – which was included in the display. There was a whole panel of Johnny Halliday, which led to a conversation that went “He’s like a French Elvis!” / “Who’s Elvis?”
The sun was beginning to set at this point and the next idea to carry out was to find a nice spot with a good view of the Eiffel Tower when she does her hourly sparkle session. This happens for five minutes after the hour, every night time hour. I thought returning to the Place de la Concorde would be a good bet so we hopped back on the métro. Unfortunately, it was 6.30pm and all of the very many offices all around la Défense had just kicked out. The métro was very full indeed and the nephew was a little freaked at peak time megacity mass transit. By the time we got to Place de la Concorde, we were very grateful to return to the surface and breathe. We were in time for the 7pm sparkle and we sat on bollards and watched.
Then it was time to eat. But Place de la Concorde is not full of budget eateries or eateries at all, and is slap bang in the centre of some of the most expensive real-estate on the planet, so we walked. Again. Again for ages. We took streets north and east, and walked through Place Vendôme, famous for extreme luxury brands, and it was entertaining to window shop on the way. It was also interesting to know what brands the nephew knew and didn’t – Gucci and Balenciaga and even Chanel were on his horizon but Patek Philippe was not. I guess I’m not getting a watch for Christmas again.
Ultimately with enough up and right we ended up on rue Étienne Marcel, having explored the menus outside a bunch of cafés and restaurants until ‘appy ‘our posters at Café Étienne Marcel drew us in. Ribs for the little ‘un and a caesar salad for me. This place was busy and the waiter here was not up for a chat. At dessert o’clock he brought us a tray of pâtisserie to see what was available and for me it was a Paris-Brest which was absolutely delicious and the teen took a tarte au citron which went a long way towards his 5 a day #beatscurvy. A quick stagger from there found a métro stop on line 4 which took us back to the Gare du Nord and an easy walk back to our digs on what had been a really epic day of walking and climbing.
Tuesday – Fitbit says 28,376 steps, 75 flights of stairs, 20.57km, 4,602 calories expended
Day 3 – Wednesday
Wednesday was booked in as our giant museum day so up early for timed tickets at the Louvre. I got slightly turned around at the métro station and ended up following signs for the Carousel du Louvre, the underground shopping centre tacked on the huge underground space beneath the giant glass Pyramid. This turned out to be a really quiet back way of getting into the museum with next to no queuing at all. There was a short hold up for bag check but then it was easy enough to walk right into the museum and around. The place was very busy, people everywhere. A visit to the Louvre is always two museums in one – the building itself, and what that tells us about pre-Revolutionary France, and the contents. Our route took us through the basements where there is a display on the mediaeval foundations and walls of one of the earliest fortress palaces on the site, up through some of the extensive Egyptology collections (personally I always try and find the mummified cats, but the layout now puts mummified dogs as one of the first things you see.) A giant timeline had me trying to work out when the Egyptian artefacts were from compared to the timeline for construction of the Louvre itself… was Ancient Egypt really so many thousand years before European civilisation was kicking off? Some of the Egypt material is unbelievably old. After Egypt we headed through some amazing halls with amazing contents – no hyperbole, literally gilded walls hosting crown jewels – before heading to paintings and the main event, the Mona Lisa. I think she has been relocated since the last time I saw her in the 90s as it all felt very different. (The Louvre was never on the itinerary for the school trips I was on after 2010). Now she essentially has a huge room to herself, she is mounted alone on a wall with a long snaking queue ahead of her for people hoping to get ten second directly in front. The queue looked too long for us and was full of people ignoring some amazing paintings on every other wall just for a little alone time with la Joconde. I got a perfectly adequate photo side on without queuing and it still looked like she was looking right at me.
This was enough museum by this point so we exited through the gift shop in search of a café, returned to the basement level and found… a Starbucks. This was very much what the nephew wanted so we headed down for some sort of sugary American blender horror and reacquainted ourselves with the outside world shortly after.
We came outside to some of the best weather we’d had all week – a shame we weren’t able to do the Eiffel Tower in the sun – and were ahead of time on our ticket for the next stop, so had a lovely walk along the Jardin des Tuileries. Along the way I got the best photo of the nephew all week by tricking him into photobombing a selfie, and we saw a fab bronze sculpture that looked like a realistic fallen tree. We also walked past another giant temporary venue that will be something Olympic in the fullness of time.
Our next appointment was the Musée d’Orsay, which we reached by walking over the footbridge that had been under construction in 1999 when I regularly walked home from the Marais to my digs in the 7th. Nice to finally see the finished bridge! Our timed tickets took us into the Orsay with very little fuss and we walked up and down the central sculpture hall to start with. The French approach to ticketing was different in every single place we visited – for some, the teen was a full price adult, in other places he was free. The Orsay was the only place where he was free and I got a discount on MY ticket just for taking him!
I was very taken with the display about the Opéra Garnier at the back with a huge cutaway model and mentally pencilled in a guided tour for a possible future grownup visit. Most of the art was leaving the nephew cold but he was taken with a bloodthirsty depiction of an African execution, all swords and heads bouncing down stairs, and as we turned around again we discovered we had completely walked past another version of la statue de la liberté as we came in. I particularly wanted to see the boatloads of Monet and Van Gogh that are here, and loved seeing the Floor Scrapers in person. I might see if I can turn my cameraphone pic into art posters for my house. The poppy field painting that I had been attempting to teach colour theory from when I was suprisingly timetabled to do art last September was there, as was creepy “let’s have a picnic while our lady friends strip” Déjeuner sur l’herbe – I knew the painting but I had no idea it was absolutely huge! There was also a Whistler exhibition so we made the acquaintance of Whistler’s Mother.
Somewhere around here, nephew let me know that he’d not heard of any of these painters ever and the only painter he knows about is Picasso, so I googled a bit to see if we could find any Picasso. The internet suggested there was loads at the Orsay but a conversation with the information desk finally led me to understand that had been a temporary exhibition that finished years ago. There was however a Musée Picasso not a million miles away…
We left the museum and went across the road in search of lunch. There was a fancy café with lots of staple French cuisine that didn’t look palatable to the teenager and Le Royal Orsay which was offering pancakes, including the special savoury sort with the buckwheat flour which I’d been raving about previously, so we went there. After our tasty meal, our neighbours in the café engaged us in conversation so I had quite a long chat in French about visiting Paris and London, living in border country and fearing invasion, Russia and Ukraine, and Brexit, before heading back on my phone to chart a course for Musée Picasso.
En route we passed les bouqinistes selling postcards on the river bank so picked up a bunch for later use, and as I got my bearings I noticed a few things we could easily visit with only a slight déviation. The most obvious between the two points was the cathedral of Notre Dame which had had its huge years previously and so clearly was not yet open to the public. It was interesting to see the cranes and construction portakabins and hope that their work will be done soon.
If you’re here, an interesting but devastating monument just around the corner that I’d not seen before but wanted to was the Mémorial des Martyrs de la déportation, an installation to remember French victims of the holocaust deported to extermination camps after the Nazi occupation of France.
We walked on through the Marais, past some old familiar haunts and the Dr Who doors from City of Death (1979) and got to the Musée Picasso with an hour to spare before closing. It was a bit of an interesting beast. There were some Picasso works there but a lot of the space was for video installations of him talking, and an entire floor not of Picasso at all but of Rodin, including yet another version of The Thinker – in stone this time, not bronze.
My final plan for this day was another high up panoramic view, this time from the top of the Tour Montparnasse. A new discovery this trip was how amazing Google Maps is at understanding the Paris transport system and it found that there was a bus directly from the Musée Picasso to the Tour Montparnasse. So another Paris first for me was using the Paris bus! On the way, we were treated to a bizarre conversation in English between two elderly ladies who liked going to exhibitions and who thought Boris was a good PM because he exemplified the English sense of humour so well.
Leaving the bus and walking to the Tour took us past a post office and after an unsuccessful attempt to use the machines I got the evergreen delight of reusing a phrase learned for GCSE thirty years before, je voudrais des timbres pour des cartes postales pour l’Angleterre. This time it led to a slightly baffling conversation about what sort I’d like, would I like Mariannes? Oh no, I don’t have any Mariannes, I’m going to have to give you self-adhesive ones, are you sure you’re OK with those? My mind was partly taken up with self-congratulation on remembering the French for self-adhesive and partly worried that there might be a good reason for me to prefer the elusive Marianne over the autocollant, but we eventually got out of the post office alive and fully equipped for postage.
Another speedy lift took us to the enclosed viewing level and we sat in the café as night fell completely. We were writing the postcards – nephew by hand, me using my app – and we spent at least an hour and half on that, and it was rather nice looking up occasionally to see how the city beneath us had changed, swapping ideas on what to put on cards and texting parents to get addresses. Eventually we surfaced from the concentration and realised we’d missed Eiffel Tower Sparkle O’clock and that we would have to hang around a bit to see 8pm, but that was OK, and we headed up to the very top outdoor floor to get ready. It was a bit of a surprise to find an ourdoor ice rink up there, and I’m afraid at this point I actually said no, we wouldn’t skate. There was a choice of roller blades or ice skates for those who were, and the surface seemed to be made out of tiles, not actual ice. The vibe up there was pretty much unaccompanied teen, but it wasn’t rowdy or unpleasant and we spent 40 minutes walking around and waiting for the grande dame de fer to do her thing. Shortly after, the roof terrace was emptying and we decided to head back to digs and find food there.
Directly outside the Gare du Nord there are a lot of options for eating and we walked up and down a bit and looked at menus and tried to avoid being accosted by over zealous waiters before we settled at a place called Au baroudeur patient, who lured us in with a promise of a table with a view of some football match or other. We ate a spag bol, a rare steak frites and we “shared” a plate of snails which came with some rather exciting cutlery to hold the slippery shells still. At the end of the meal, people at the table next door engaged us in conversation again – it turned out mainly to be a charming young maths post-doc who had just secured a research post in Australia who really wanted to practise his English, but who had pretty strong skills on that front. We explored non-Euclidean geometry for a bit and taught him some vital Australian slang like “throw another sheila on the barbie!” and his friend fell asleep, which was our cue to return to the hotel and sleep.
Wednesday – Fitbit says 25,254 steps, 38 flights of stairs, 18.33km, 4,301 calories expended
Final Day – Thursday
Our final day allowed us a slightly later start to pack up and put our suitcases in the hotel luggage store before heading on the RER to Denfert Rochereau for the famous Catacombes. This was the most expensive trip of the weekend, barely any child reduction, and although it had looked like we were on time for the timed tickets, we took a wrong turn out of the RER station and showed up too late. The website threatened that the tickets were not valid 15 minutes after the face time, but we were sent to the back of the queue with slapped wrists and eventually allowed down there. There was an option of half price on-the-day tickets but not taking that option proved the right decision as they were completely sold out by the time we got there. We opted not to do the audioguide and I read some of the panels and translated fragments where necessary. It’s a bizarre and creepy place. When you surface you are a long way from where you went down into the ground and it’s not immediately clear how you return to the start, but we sorted it eventually and headed to a café for our final elevenses. Café Daguerre on a corner somewhere brought me a double espresso and I ordered for the teen and got him a citron pressé – something I’ve seen in books and on menus but never actually ordered. It took a LOT of sugar added to the lemon juice before we got to something he could drink, but it was good to know that we had #beatscurvy for another day.
Then that was it – métro back to the hotel to reclaim baggage, postcards posted on the way back to the Gare du Nord, then the long slog of baggage checks, 5 separate checkpoints to cross the border, a long sit in departures and a long sit on the train, and our French trip was over.
Totting up the fitbit data suggests I dragged the poor long suffering nephew through 71km or 44 miles of walking in three days, le pauvre petit garçon!