We spent some time in Barcelona and the south of France on our recent vacation, but most of it was in Paris. I saw sights, visited museums, hunted for the perfect baguette, ate at great foodie restaurants, spent time with locals (Jeremy‘s friends and family) and generally tried to soak up as much as I could. It was great.
Here are some highlights and thoughts, in roughly chronological order. Also see the pictures.
The people watching hit me first. Lots of classically Gallic facial features!
Books, classical music, and other more “intellectual” parts of culture are more common and mainstream. The same thing struck me when I visited Prague. Very cool.
Not that it’s a surprise to anyone, but Paris felt very urban, very big city, more New York than San Francisco. Some of that may be due to the strong central planning when it was originally built up. The spiral pattern of arrondisements was also interesting.
Also, like many places in Europe, old, beautiful architecture is everywhere! Not just the landmarks, but ordinary buildings too. Old buildings in the US may be hundreds of years old, but old buildings in Paris are thousands of years old, and it shows.
Chapelle St. Michelle, a smaller and lesser known but utterly beautiful chapel in the Latin Quarter, known for its overwhelming stained glass. We heard a small chamber music concert in the chapel, and even with scaffolding across one corner, it was a moving experience. The acoustics, in particular, were absolutely haunting.
On a related note, our hotel was in the Latin Quarter, centrally located in the 5th arrondisement and just minutes from the Seine river, Notre Dame, and lots of other great neighborhoods and locations. It’s largely a student neighborhood due to the universities nearby, but it’s also drawn more tourists recently.
Designer retail stores for car companies! Similar to Apple stores, but naturally a little larger. And in prime real estate on the Champs-Élysées, no less. I wonder if we’ll see them here eventually too.
Like the Chappelle St. Michelle, Notre Dame was stunning, as much for the history behind it as for the exterior, interior, or the acoustics. Even the crowds and muted buzz of noise inside couldn’t diminish the impact.
The Louvre. First, it’s massive, both the building(s) and the collections. Even if you only tried to see the fraction of the collections that was exhibited at any one time, it would still easily take a solid week. Regardless, both the buildings and the Tuilieres gardens were well worth seeing.
We also noticed that France and Spain intentionally placed modern art alongside classical art in a number of places. Most of these didn’t work, at least for us, and often detracted from both. The Louvre’s famous pyramid was one of the few exceptions, though. Not only did it seem to fit, it actually felt like a positive contribution.
Montmartre was particularly memorable. It’s yet another beautiful, historic chapel that boasts one of the best views of the city outside of the Eiffel Tower.
The Salon du Chocolat was awesome. It”s the first chocolate show I’ve been to, but it definitely won’t be the last. There were lots of truffles and ganaches, cocoa butter cosmetics, demonstrations and talks, and other fun stuff. More to the point, I met people from lots of boutique French chocolatiers who were new to me and sourced from interesting places. Naturally, I bought way too much chocolate and regretted it when I had to pack for the flight back.
Versailles was one of my favorite parts of Paris. The palace itself was ridiculous, with gold leaf and frescoes and bas relief statues everywhere and not a square inch undecorated. Veilhan Versailles‘s embedded modern art pieces were disappointing, and distracting, especially the one in the Hall of Mirrors, but we generally managed to tune them out.
We spent more time in the gardens, though, and I’m glad we did. They were breathtaking. First, they’re immense, and heavily wooded, reminding me of some parts of Stanford campus. Second, the original planning and layout has as much of an effect now as it did then. Parts of it played tricks with perspective and seemed like they could go on forever. Others contrasted intricate detail and untamed wilderness. Best of all, there were moments were I felt like I could get truly lost, out of sight of anyone else. away from any other people. It was easy to see how they made people of the royal court feel like they could explore and have real adventures without leaving the garden.
At one point, we saw a couple people jogging in a remote area of the garden. I was very, very jealous. What an amazing place for a daily run, right?
The Eiffel Tower. It may be cliched, but it’s still damn impressive. Also, I’m a little embarrassed to admit it, but before I visited I actually thought more of it was enclosed. I didn’t realize just how little of it was usable space.
The Palais Garnier opera hall. Yet another gorgeous, utterly historic piece of Paris architecture. It may not hold up to the new Opéra Bastille as an actual opera venue, but for what it is, it’s stunning.
On our last night, an impromptu street performance by an ad hoc break dance crew in Plaza St Michelle. Simple, fun, surprisingly good, and very European.