My first solo trip to Europe happened in 2007, when I was in my early forties. Traveling has never been easy for me, but I needed to attend a conference, so I made myself do it. I felt terrified most of the time, but there was also a pleasing sense of autonomy, and exhilaration at finally seeing places I had only read about.
This was the last time I used a real camera, instead of a phone camera, which helps to explain why my photos turned out so well. I still think they’re the best photographs I’ve ever shot. No doubt they are much like everyone else’s tourist photos of Paris, but one difference is that I visited in late December, a time when very few other tourists are there. The city was peaceful, people were patient with me, and I felt welcome.
I had the most charming of rooms for the romantically-inclined: a tiny attic space with flowered wallpaper and a view over the mansard rooftops of Paris. This is what they used to call a “garret”–where all the penniless poets and artists starved in the nineteenth century.
Even the Louvre was uncrowded. There was no line to get in, and the Mesopotamian galleries (my favorites) were empty. The only area of real congestion was the Mona Lisa, but I suppose that is axiomatic and will never change.
I was only there for two full days, so I didn’t get to see everything on my list (the Père Lachaise cemetery and Montmartre were my two biggest regrets). Some places exceeded my expectations. I especially enjoyed the Musée D’Orsay, not so much for the Impressionist art as for the lovely building itself.
I think some people dislike traveling solo because meals can be lonely. That part, I didn’t mind. I don’t feel self-conscious about dining alone, and I enjoy it. Sometimes the staff will give you a bad table if you’re a party of one, but sometimes they take pity on you and treat you well. I had lots of good food in Paris, but my favorite was L’As du Fallafel in the Marais, which you buy from a window and eat standing on the street. The best falafel I’ve ever had.
I did a LOT of walking. When I look back, I’m surprised I accomplished as much as I did in that short time. My conference was in Lille and I spent most of my trip there (one part of Paris I did not enjoy was the Gare du Nord).
I was up at dawn to see the Eiffel Tower.
I got to the Tower before it opened and I was one of the first people in. I took the elevator to the middle viewing floor, planning to walk back down the stairs, as my guidebook recommended.
When I was done admiring the view, I opened a door that led to the stairs. But partway down, I hit a stile that was closed, so I had to climb back up to the second-level platform. Much to my shock, that door either did not open from the inside, or had been locked in the meantime. I was trapped!
I began to panic. Nobody else was on the stairs, as it was still early in the morning, and most people simply take the elevator down. I didn’t know how to get out, and it was very cold, with the winter wind whipping through the metal lattices. Finally I went back down to the closed stile and awkwardly climbed over it. A group of Asian tourists who were on their way up avidly snapped photos of my transgression. I’m not sure whether (or how) they got through.
I rode the Metro all the way out to La Défense, which is the business district west of the city. During the holidays they have a huge “Christmas Village” with stalls selling all sorts of seasonal foods and gifts. I loved seeing the roasted chestnuts, bûches de noël (“Yule log” cakes) and marzipan. But what interested me most was the massive arch, which was built in the 1980s.
Paris is full of wonders like this, both ancient and modern. My most cherished memory is of sitting in the Sainte-Chapelle, drinking in the beauty of its stained glass. It’s the chapel built by King Louis IX in 1248 to house his collection of relics, including what he believed to be Christ’s crown of thorns. I remember going up to the chapel through a very narrow, winding stone staircase. The cramped stairs made a shocking contrast with the soaring beauty of the chapel, but both are equally medieval.
Maybe this trip has a special place in my heart because I did it by myself. It wasn’t easy, but since then I have felt less fearful about traveling alone.
I love this remembrance of a special trip to the most romantic of cities. Many of your experiences reminded me of my brif solo excursion to Paris, where I met up with college friends spending their junior year abroad, but the photo of your garret room echoed my experience with my husband when we stayed at the Esmeralda, a small hotel across the Seine from the Note Dame. We stayed in a small garret room at the top of the winding old staircase, wallpapered with large red roses on all of the walls, ceiling, and the back of the door. When we closed the door we laughed, as it looked as if there was no way out! The food in Paris is wonderful, even in the smallest place. We had a great experience at the Gare during Nord, which we unknowingly went through on farmer’s market day. Farmers from the countryside set up their booths in the large underground area, and wonderful country cheeses, sausages, and baked goods were bountiful and beautifully displayed. The French culinary pride is unsurpassed.
Wow, I like that story about the Gare du Nord! That would have changed my attitude 🙂 But to me it was scary because I’d never been on a train before, didn’t know which platform or car to go to, etc. Probably now, it would be much easier. I agree about the food, especially the cheese. The most modest bistro there was able to serve each cheese at the perfect ripeness and temperature, whereas here in the states, even expensive restaurants often don’t understand cheese service.
Oddly enough I have not been back since then, but I keep thinking about it.
Gare du Nord is still utter yuck! Even at the Eurostar end. For a place with such gorgeous food and drink the lack thereof at GduN especially when required to check in more than 1h before travel and such is incredible. Nice they have that market going but not been lucky enough to catch it. But I share your love of Sainte Chapelle and the museums 😊 and bistro food
Markets are fun. In NYC we walked through the one at Union Square and they had whole Christmas wreaths made of rosemary. Mmmmm, so good. But I have to admit, my crowd tolerance is low, so after ten minutes I’m ready to go!
Sylvie G said:
I often do not visit churches but when in Paris, I saw the Sainte Chapelle and went without knowing. To this day, it is my best memory (in those days I did not take photos at all, thinking I would remember, silly me).
It’s the most beautiful church I have ever seen, bar none. As in the Sistine Chapel, they have to post guards to shush tourists who speak loudly and without respect, forgetting that it is a sacred place.
Sylvie G said:
It would not have occurred to me to speak loudly there.
Nice to see my ex-city here !
I think no one likes la Gare du Nord… It’s dirty, crowded (and unlucky me, I had to stop here everyday when I worked in Paris years ago).
I love le musée d’Orsay too (more for the architcture too). And it’s super rare to see an uncrowded Louvre ^^
I only got to see a fraction of the Louvre-would like to explore more of it.
There always more to see at the Louvre… I remember the 1st I went to visit : I was about 12 and wanted to see the whole museum. My grandma told me it was impossible…
It probably *is* impossible to see it all, but I like that idea.
Henry Chamberlain said:
Linnet, I love Paris too! I can relate to all your observations. Yes, I think a good ole 35mm camera is all one should ever need. And, yes, there is so much to gain from traveling alone. I think that is what led to you covering so much ground. I love the garret you stayed in. And, ah, to be momentarily trapped in the Eiffel Tower. If only it wasn’t winter! Lastly, I had been given to understand that you can stay as long as you want at a Paris cafe. Not so true, you get the shove after not too long. Maybe that varies. One trick that I am not above using, if I am alone and about to be seated, is to say that I will have someone joining me in a bit. Then I can get a booth or a better table. Later, I say that my friend won’t be able to join me. I wouldn’t do that all the time. But there are times when you just need to do it. I can always tip well at the end.
Haha! Thanks for the “tip” 🙂 Interesting about getting the shove–I’ve found that in Europe, they won’t bring the check until you call for it, even if you’ve been sitting a long time. Very different from the US, where they bring it as soon as you’re done and say “no hurry” which conveys the opposite message…
There is something to be said for travelling on your own – you are your own boss; stay up as late as you like, get up as late as you want, choose the sights to see, the cafes to have lunch in etc etc. However, it is lovely to share what you are seeing with someone else, especially when it is Paris… It is many, many years since I was last there (I think half a life-time, actually), and your post has given me an appetite to go back…
I like being my own boss–it’s more efficient, for one thing. But what I miss on solo trips is someone else to share the pleasure, especially when it comes to food.
Ideal travel companions: loved one or best friend with whom one can just be oneself, and even request a bit of alone time without offending.
Agreed. It’s got to be someone you can trust, too.
Wow, lovely! And such gorgeous pictures! Makes me want to go to Paris again, it’s been a few years….
Thanks! I really should go back because I only saw (and tasted) a fraction of it.
Thank you for sharing, my friend. Now you know people of Paris and many other places. When you travel you no longer have to eat alone – unless it’s by choice.
True! The world seems a smaller place now 🙂
I love the excitement of traveling alone. There’s a bit of fear involved, but also exhilaration. I haven’t done it in such a long time that I don’t know how I’d feel about it these days.
There’s nothing like having a real camera, I know what you mean. Luckily, when I was in France as a student, I didn’t have a phone yet. This was at a time when most people had phones, but I was a bit late. The photos from that time turned out to be the best I’ve ever taken. Did you by any chance get any photos developed while you were there? I noticed that the prints I got while in France were way better than the ones I get here for some reason. In some mysterious way they looked better, even sharper, than the digital version, which doesn’t make much sense to me.
I love the attic room, by the way. That really is romantic. I can imagine working on my writing while there, sipping on that cafe au lait. Perfect!
This was a digital camera, but it was a good one, and lightyears better than the phones of that era. I don’t know enough about photography to identify the advantages of real film, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they exist, and are being sacrificed for the sake of convenience.
For quite a while I thought I had lost the digital photos from this trip. So it was a joy to discover them again–hence the post on a journey from several years ago. It caused me to realize how much that one trip changed my life. And that I need to be much more scrupulous about backups 🙂
I always walk so much in Paris! But we get to walk off all the baked goods then 😉
Ah, the baked goods… I still remember how flaky the croissants were…
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Alyson Rich said:
I love your post! I love Paris, so it was easy for me to enjoy your lovely photos. Most of all I love it because you were able to experience Paris in late December. That was the time of year during my first visit also. I felt so thankful that it was not completely over crowded like it is during the summertime. Yes, it was cold but something felt special about being here this time of year. I got to experience my second December here and 2016. Seems like you were able to see a lot!
Thank you Alyson! Yes, I am almost afraid to go during the warm months because it would not be as peaceful. But I would like to see the Tuileries and the Champs Elysée when the trees have leaves.
Alyson Rich said:
Yes, I am looking forward to spring, it already feels a little warmer.