Paris feels like a stroll through an Impressionist painting, especially during the holidays. Colors are seen as if through a screen; side by side, diffused, and with the playful nature of light. There is a translucence, a romantic aura and a freshness that transcends time and place. Here’s how to experience all the city has to offer this time of year.
By Rose Betty Williams
Photography Courtesy of Rose Betty Williams, Archival Photography
Art is high priority for me and there is no place like Paris for seeing art. There is a museum on nearly every corner, and each street has a unique history and architectural beauty.
We walked the same streets that Utrillo, Renoir, Pissarro, Monet, Manet and Picasso, among others, immortalized on canvas.
If you want to pledge your love, carve your initials on a padlock, lock it to the bridge and throw the key into the Seine. We overheard a guide say to be careful which bridge you put your lock on because Pont des Arts is for your committed love, while Pont de l’Archevêché is for your lover.
Paris is enchantment. Paris is love. Paris is a dream. For the holidays, the City of Lights is even more special than perhaps any time of the year.
We arrived in Paris fully armed with our Frommer’s, Michelin and Rick Steve’s Guidebooks and intending to tour the city logically, systematically… and with resolve. Not to be. Guidebooks are just that… guides. We selected what we wanted to see, where we wanted to eat and which museums we’d visit. Guidebooks helped with location, site highlights, cost, days and hours open, yet beyond that, we were on our own. After all, we had our own agendas and interests.
Our apartment in a refurbished 18th century building, which we found through Austin-based HomeAway.com, was ideally located in the First Arrondissement between the Louvre and the Opéra Garnier in a very residential area and suited us perfectly with three bedrooms, two full bathrooms, a fully equipped kitchen, balconies with views and a living room stocked with volumes of books, guides and the owners’ recommendations for places to visit, eat, drink and have a visit of a lifetime for our entire family.
Tip Weigh the pros and cons for renting an apartment versus reserving a hotel room. If you prefer an apartment, set your parameters for location (not only proximity to certain places but also quiet or busy street), size, number of bedrooms, bathrooms, views, whether you need an elevator, want air conditioning and central heating, security, etc.
Art is high priority for me and there is no place like Paris for seeing art. There is a museum on nearly every corner, and each street has a unique history and architectural beauty. We bought two-day Museum Passes from the Tourism Office by the Pyramides Metro for 37 Euros per person.
Tip: The Tourism Office has maps, current listings of special events, exhibitions, excursions, Metro and Museum Passes and can book most with a credit card, and those working at the Tourism Office are fluent in English and eager to help and please. Go to www.parisinfo.com
Tip: Museum passes are great as they get you to the front of museum lines for quick and easy entry. However, the passes cover not all museums, and passes have to be used on consecutive days. Translation: Buy a one-day pass if you are not sure you have back to back days to visit museums.
We felt compelled to go to as many museums in two days as possible. For me who likes to enjoy art at a slow pace and savor each and every treasure, I found fitting in more than two museums a day too much. The Louvre was all we managed on Day One; Musée Rodin and d’Orsay on Day Two, but we got to the d’Orsay so late that we weren’t allowed to enter some of the galleries. We learned that an hour before museums close, at least this was our experience at the d’Orsay, visitors are ushered out of (and none can enter) one exhibit gallery after another from the top floor (and/or most popular exhibits down) to make sure crowds are out of the building at closing.
On Monday, the d’Orsay is closed, but the Louvre is open so that was our first museum stop. The amount of art and the size of the Louvre are staggering. It contains more than 380,000 objects and displays approximately 35,000 works of art in an area of 652,000 square feet. It is said that the Louvre averages 15,000 visitors daily. We did the touristy thing and joined a huge international crowd in admiring the Mona Lisa, Winged Victory, and Venus de Milo. We were most interested in seeing the Italian masters, including Raphael, Michelangelo, Bellini, Caravaggio and Titian; and French paintings such as Jacques-Louis David’s The Coronation of Napoleon and Eugène Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People. My husband wanted to see all the Leonardo DaVinci paintings and we found St. John the Baptist right away and then looked for two others – Virgin and Child with St. Anne and Madonna of the Rocks. I wanted to see Napoleon’s rooms, but alas, we ran out of time and energy. It’s in the Richelieu Wing, and we hadn’t covered all of the Sully and Denon Wings.
Tuesday was dedicated to visiting Montmartre, the Musée Rodin and Musée d’Orsay. We hired a guide to take us on a 2-3-hour private walking tour of Montmartre. Our guidebooks were helpful but our local guide gave us a much more enhanced appreciation for what we were seeing and why. Our guide lives in Montmartre. He shared his insights, lesser-known facts about the area and took us to some of his favorite spots as well as the more popular places. He was very informative, engaging, and focused on our interests.
We had coffee at Café des 2 Moulins, (where the movie Amélie takes place), visited the Moulin Rouge (birthplace of the Can-Can, and venue for diverse marquee entertainment ranging from Edith Piaf, Yves Montand, Ginger Rogers, Dalida, Baryshnikov, Ray Charles, Frank Sinatra, Elton John and more. We walked the same streets that Utrillo, Renoir, Pissarro, Monet, Manet and Picasso, among others, immortalized on canvas. What an experience. We saw Le Moulin de la Galette – the same one that Renoir depicted in his painting that now hangs in the d’Orsay.
We visited The Montmartre Museum, which is the oldest building in Montmartre, tells the history of the area from Roman days and was home to a great many of the Impressionists. We also visited La Maison Rouge. Maurice Utrillo lived in this house with his mother, Suzanne Valadon. She was a circus acrobat who following a fall from a trapeze pursued her interest in art. She worked as a model for artists Toulouse-Lautrec, Renoir and Edgar Degas, and eventually became an artist herself. Some of her paintings are in the Centre Pompidou. With the exception of cars, the Montmartre street scenes look pretty much like they did more than a century ago.
Our guide told us an apocryphal story (that we later learned is attributed to Diego Rivera) concerning Utrillo’s paternity. After her son was born, Suzanne Valadon went to Renoir for whom she had modeled the previous nine months. Renoir looked at the baby and said, ‘He can’t be mine, the color is terrible!’ Next she went to Degas, for whom she had also modeled. He said, ‘He can’t be mine, the form is terrible!’ At a cafe, Valadon saw an artist she knew named Miguel Utrillo. The man told her to call the baby Utrillo: ‘I would be glad to put my name to the work of either Renoir or Degas!” True or not, Maurice took the name Utrillo, won critical acclaim as an artist, and today his paintings are printed on post cards, including his very popular 1936 painting entitled, Montmartre Street Corner.
Tip: Wear very comfortable walking shoes or boots (other than tennis shoes, which can get wet and seem to be frowned upon by Parisians) and plan to hike uphill and climb many stairs in Montmartre.
Tip: Get a reliable guide who speaks your language and knows your interests. We found our guide Chris at CityFreeTours.com on Tripadvisor.com. The company name implies the tours are free, but for the regularly scheduled 1.5 hour long tours with groups of 10-15 people, a tip per person is expected. We opted for a private tour and had to schedule it in advance. It is definitely worth the extra expense. We loved Chris and learned so much from him. We paid our guide 120 Euros plus tip after the tour. No pre-payment, no credit card.
Tip: If you plan to go to Le Lapin Agile, Paris’s oldest cabaret still in operation, make reservations because it is very small. The vibes of Hemingway, Picasso and Utrillo are ever present. In 1993, Steve Martin wrote the play, Picasso at the Lapin Agile, that features an imagined debate between Albert Einstein and Pablo Picasso about the merits of genius and talent. Le Lapin Agile is also featured in the film, Paris Blues, starring Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Sidney Poitier and Diahann Carroll.
Tip: Go to Chez la Mere Catherine on Place du Tertre for onion soup and goat cheese salad.
Our Tuesday afternoon was divided between the Musée Rodin and the Musée d’Orsay. Rodin’s sculptures are bigger than life and exude a power and a strength that are in sharp contrast to and yet harmonious with the idyllic, peaceful gardens in which they stand.
Tip: While the gardens are beautiful in winter, spring provides an entirely different experience with extensive lawns lined with flowerbeds in full bloom.
At the d’Orsay we paid particular attention to Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s Bal du Moulin de la Galette because we were there the previous day.
Tip: Start at the d’Orsay’s top floor. It features the heavy hitters: Degas, Monet, Manet, Renoir, Whistler, Sisley, and Pissarro. The lower floors feature Courbet, Ingres, Delacroix, van Gogh, Gauguin, Seurat, Nabi, Toulouse-Lautrec and Picasso, among others. Of course, check the d’Orsay guidebook and map when you arrive to confirm the location of the exhibits and painters that most interest you.
On Wednesday we hired a private guide to take us to the Loire Valley. We toured wineries in Sancerre and Pouilly-sur-Loire, la Ferme de Port Aubry cheese factory in Cosne-Cours-sur-Loire and enjoyed a traditional country French lunch at a charming restaurant in Sancerre. After the miles of walking at The Louvre, Rodin and d’Orsay Museums and throughout Montmartre, our feet got a well-deserved and needed rest. The countryside was spectacular with a palette of colors in every shade and hue. The day started before sunrise and ended long after sunset. We met the vintners, visited their cellars, sampled and bought their wines. We learned about the terroir and tasted how the different soil, fermentation and aging processes significantly impact the flavor of wine. Our guide, Jean Bernard Petin, is a gem. He knows the turf and locals well. In fact, his formative years were spent half in Paris and half in a small Loire Valley village where his uncle still lives. Jean Bernard is expanding his tours to include visits to Versailles, Burgundy and other chateaux and can customize daylong tours for people who want a hands-on, informative, relaxing and very enjoyable day outside of Paris.
Thursday morning we visited the Opera Garnier at Place de l’Opéra. a high priority for me and a real thrill. The Opera Garnier is unrivaled for its glamour: dripping in gilt, white and colored marbles, red velvet seats in the auditorium, gold terraced balconies, astonishingly beautiful ceilings, particularly the Marc Chagall ceiling composed of 12 panels that pay homage to 14 composers and the bronze and crystal chandelier at its center (it weighs 7 tons and contains 340 lights), the red apron stage curtain, the grand staircases, the loggia, the murals and ceilings in the galleries and Grand Foyer, the seemingly infinite number of sculptures everywhere and the interplay of mosaics and marbles, decorative arts and paintings. The outside is equally fantastic. The facade has stone busts of composers on pedestals bearing the coats of arms of their native cities and sea green marble plaques with gold letters identifying them, their dates of birth and death. It is splendid beyond compare. My only regret is that we didn’t see a ballet or opera performance.
Tip: Admission to the Opera Garnier is not covered by the Paris Museum Pass.
Tip: On days when a matinee is scheduled, no tours are available after 1PM.
Tip: Tours for English-speaking visitors are scheduled throughout the day. No reservations needed. A better option for us, however, since we didn’t want to wait the hour for the next tour, was buying an Opera Garnier guidebook in the boutique and using it as our reference.
The Galeries Lafayette was our next stop, basically across the street from the Opera Garnier on 40 bd Haussmann. Called Le Grand Magasin, the Capitale de la Mode, Galeries Lafayette is a department store unlike any other. Housed in three buildings, the center building features a floor-to-stained glass-ceiling Christmas tree that could be a wonder of the world. Surrounding the tree on floor level are all the major perfumes (and lesser known ones), and surrounding the perfumeries are French couture fashions from Dior to Hermes to Gucci to you name it, and of course, the très elegant Parisian shoppers. Like the Opera Garnier, the Galeries Lafayette features multiple floors all in gold that encircle and overlook the bottom level and tree. It is spectacular and a real sensory treat. Frankly, it is a must-see and experience at Christmas time.
We dedicated Thursday afternoon to the Musée de L’Orangerie, my favorite museum in Paris, located on the bank of the Seine in the old orangery of the Tuileries Palace on the Place de la Concorde. The L’Orangerie is a very manageable and accessible museum. We sat on benches admiring Monet’s Water Lilies (also known as Nympheas) that surrounded us. I felt like a fish in an aquarium looking out and loved every minute. The downstairs galleries feature Impressionist and Post-Impressionist painters, including Monet, Cézanne, Matisse, Modigliani, Picasso, Renoir, Rousseau, Sisley, Chaim Soutine, Derain, Laurencin and Utrillo paintings, among so many others. Wow! Wow! Wow! Outside the L’Orangerie is a huge statue by Rodin, Le Baiser (what a kiss), and beyond that, the splendid Tuileries Gardens with a carousel at one end, the lighted Ferris Wheel with heated and enclosed cabins on the other and a lot of people and dogs. Parisians love their dogs and they are everywhere.
We strolled back to our apartment via the Rue de Rivoli, checking out the hot chocolate at Angelina’s, stopping in the Le Meurice Hotel, shopping for Limoges at Marechal, other souvenirs like a French chapeau, parapluie, Fauchon chocolates and flowers at Lachaume at 10, rue Royale. Called the Maitre Fleuriste of Paris since 1845 during the Belle Epoque, Lachaume’s flowers, colors, scents and arrangements are exquisite. I highly recommend visiting it.
Thursday dinner was at Le Grand Colbert, where the scene of the reunion of Diane Keaton and Jack Nicholson takes place in the movie Something’s Gotta Give. Try the chateaubriand and a bottle of Bordeaux. Any wine on the menu will do! Order the Ile Flottante for dessert with islands of meringue floating in crème Anglaise. C’est magnifique.
Speaking of food, the best Italian food I’ve eaten anywhere – and I’ve eaten lots– was at La Corte on 320 Rue St. Honoré. We arrived at 6:30PM without reservations, typically a mistake for the better restaurants. For whatever reason, (perhaps my husband’s Stetson hat that both intrigued and amused them) we were seated. Thank goodness. We loved our meal, the service and the ambiance were perfection. We savored each and every flavor of the pastas, veal dishes, and the colorful, fresh and delicious veggies …and the tiramisu and panna cotta – I think it’s impossible to find better desserts. By 8PM the restaurant was full to capacity. One couple dining next to us spoke Chinese, another French, and two tables away was an Italian family. It was a virtual United Nations.
Tip: Dinners in Paris usually start at 8PM. Make reservations at better restaurants. Don’t expect to be seated and/or get dinner service before 7PM.
Friday we visited Notre Dame, which at this time of year was decorated for Christmas with a crèche inside and a huge, lighted Christmas tree outside. We found Saint Denis (the Patron Saint of Paris) holding his head on the façade of Notre Dame. When the bells rang, we looked for Quasimodo in the Tower. No Quasimodo, but scary gargoyles were indeed everywhere.
We strolled the Ile de la Cite, watched the Bateaux Mouches cruise The Seine, and crossed back and forth over Paris’s beautiful bridges. If you want to pledge your love, carve your initials on a padlock, lock it to the bridge and throw the key into the Seine. We overheard a guide say to be careful which bridge you put your lock on because Pont des Arts is for your committed love, while Pont de l’Archevêché is for your lover. We then went to Shakespeare and Company, Paris’s longtime bookstore. It’s jammed packed with a dazzling selection of almost all English books and we bought (yes, I admit it) a couple of copies of Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast.
Tip: If you buy a book at Shakespeare and Company, make sure you get the inside cover stamped by the cashier with the Shakespeare and Company emblem. They are great for gifts.
We opted for a quick, fairly inexpensive and early dinner at a cafe in the chic Marais district. We sat at tables outside, enjoyed falafel, crepes for dinner, crepes for dessert and people watched. Since the Centre Pompidou was open late, we went there next. The Centre Pompidou is a museum, a large public reference library, a cinema, performance space, a musical research institute and shopping mall all wrapped in one. We took the escalator, totally enclosed in a tube outside the building, up to the top floor for the Edvard Munch special exhibit and then worked our way down to the Permanent exhibits of Cubism, Dadaism, surrealism, minimalism, kinetic, modern and contemporary art of 20th and 21st century artists such as Warhol, Braque, Dali, Leger, Picasso, Delaunay, Kandinsky, Rothko and more.
Tip: The observation deck on the top floor of the Pompidou Center commands 360-degree views of the city. Every bit as good, IMHO, as the views from the Eiffel Tower and with much smaller crowds and places to sit, eat and drink.
We decided to stop at the Monoprix en route back to our apartment and bought bread, butter, cheese and orange juice, to have for breakfast, plus coffee for the apartment’s espresso machine. Of course, we could have waited until morning since literally just outside our front door is our favorite boulangerie, La Tradition Julien, where we stopped daily for pane chocolate, croissants, Panini, sandwiches and salad.
Tip: Monoprix stores are conveniently located everywhere in Paris. They are a kind of budget grocery/department store hybrid with everything from food to wine to clothing, cosmetics, small appliances, candy, souvenirs, and more. The bathrooms are also clean and open to the public.
Saturday. We thought everything would be closed on Christmas Eve. Wrong. The stores and streets are packed. People seemed to be relaxing and taking their time sipping café and wine and even drinking Pernod (a cocktail version often called Pastis) that looks refreshing, but for me tastes quite awful; very alcoholic and licorice-tasting. We decided to head to Le Petits Palais, the Grand Palais, walked past the U.S. Embassy and through the holiday markets that lined the streets. We saw long filets of salmon roasting vertically by open fires, and sampled chestnuts roasting in vendors’ open fires.
We looked in the windows of Gucci and Dessange; admiring, drooling. We walked to the Champs Elysées decked out in all its gorgeous finery –the Christmas lights sparkled like a million stars across the avenue. We stopped by Ladurée, the birthplace of macaroons, and then walked down the Champs Elysées to the Arc de Triomphe. It is as crowded underground as above ground.
We then went to the Eiffel Tower. It was too windy and too crowded to go to the top, but what a magnificent structure and Parisian landmark. Then it was off for a traditional French Christmas Eve dinner of oysters, turkey and Buche de Noël. Of course, champagne, wine and more champagne. Delicious.
Tip: We made reservations weeks earlier thinking we wouldn’t be able to find a place for Christmas Eve dinner. Not necessary. There are plenty of places open and many feature holiday fixed price menus. Nevertheless, we were happy to have reservations at L’Atelier du Parc because without them, we would have been turned away. The place was completely full.
Sunday. Christmas Day. Following a large breakfast in our apartment, and Merry Christmas hugs and kisses, we went to Église Saint-Eustache at the edge of the Marais in the heart of Les Halles. It is a truly beautiful Gothic church that houses treasures like a Rubens painting, a statue of Pigalle, and has an impressive history. Louis XIV received his first communion here. Mozart chose the sanctuary as the location for his mother’s funeral. Richelieu, Jeanne-Antoinette Poisson, the future Madame de Pompadour and Molière were baptized here. Molière was married here and Scaramouche was buried here.
Rameau, Berlioz, Franck and Liszt gave organ recitals at Église Saint-Eustache, and I could see and hear why. With 8,000 pipes, the organ is reputed to be the largest pipe organ in France, surpassing the organs of Saint-Sulpice and Notre Dame de Paris. Today’s organ concert was scheduled in the afternoon immediately followed by Christmas Mass. Hearing the organ in this setting is an ethereal and uplifting experience. The word awesome comes to mind, as does everything in Paris.
Christmas in Paris is indeed awesome, grand, glorious, inspiring and breathtakingly enchanting. Until we visit next time and discover more unimaginable sights in the City of Lights. Joyeux Fetes!