We Were Staying in Paris

Or so the song goes. The Chainsmokers never ceases to amaze me by simultaneously dumbing me down and making me happy about it. Regardless of your opinion of the EDM group, you have to recognize their knack for churning out catchy songs. Or cute Instagram captions. Either or.

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Bülachhof takes on Paris.

This would be my second time visiting the City of Light, but Paris looked a little different this time around. I’m going to preface this post with “unpopular opinion”, so cut me some slack if I rained a little on your Parisian parade. If you had asked twelve year old Grace of her opinion of Paris, then it would have been quite different.

Since I had visited Paris before, I wasn’t very keen on visiting again when my flat mates Alex, Brandon, and Zach invited me along for their boys’ weekend. As Monday became Tuesday and Tuesday became Wednesday, I was itching to leave Zürich and their invitation to France was almost as tantalizing as their promise for champagne. Yes, I was sold because Zach said that they’d make a day trip to Reims for some good ol’ champagne tasting. By Thursday afternoon, my bags were packed and I was jetting away to the land of butter croissants.

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Throwing it back to Grade 9 French and Le Petit Prince.

Funny thing is that I booked my flight separately from the boys, so I landed early in the evening while my male counterparts were due to arrive a little past midnight. With that said and done, I was tasked with securing accommodations prior to their arrival. Feeling like Mama Goose again (shoutout to all my Toronto friends who know this is true), I took on this responsibility with pride. There are two main airports in the outskirts of Paris: Charles de Gaulle (CDG) and Orly (ORY). CDG is slightly further away from city centre, but this is the main hub for the majority of international flights. When I first landed in the late afternoon, it was packed with freshly arrived tourists. Heading down to the ground floor, there is a long queue for train tickets into the city. Remember to have enough loose Euro coins to purchase from the self-serving machines! The long lines for representatives could be completely avoided if you know the direction of travel and time of departure. Round trip tickets are slightly cheaper than individual one-way tickets, so consider your schedule to save a couple of pennies. It’s also important to remember that the train system is different from the public transport system. If you plan to take more than 7 trips on the Métro, then it is more economical to buy a pack of 10 tickets, also known as “carnet” by the locals. You can find more information on this: here.

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A rather intense departures board at CDG.

Once I was thoroughly exhausted from figuring out the Parisian transit situation, I eventually got off at Gare du Nord and walked a short distance to St. Christopher’s Inn. It might have been the setting sun or bustling commute, but I did not feel like a Parisian girl walking through a storybook town. When I was younger, I imagined Paris to be “shiny”, synonymous to clean streets and glittering buildings. What I was faced with were sketchy alleyways and muddy waters. Several times, I’d speed up my walking because I could feel little thieves eying my backpack. There were several homeless people sitting outside the steps of the train station, and even more lining the streets begging for change. As a young Asian girl travelling solo, it was not the easiest route to maneuver.

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Walking along the Seine River during a rainy evening.

St. Christopher’s itself was a decent hostel. Having only stayed in a couple in prior travels, it was up to par with the Generator in Copenhagen and Wombats in Munich. The lobby posted several tourist attractions and nightly activities. An adjacent restaurant served guests at a discounted price. However, the music was booming and could be heard from the upper floors. And make sure to avoid rooms near the elevator because you can feel every creak as the moving box ascends or descends during the night. Finally, make sure to double check your bill when paying since many of these hostels will not mention the tourist tax, which is calculated per person per day. Since we had enough people to fill a four-person room, the private washroom was nice. You’ll hear later on during my travels where the restrooms were not as nice.

Settling into the hostel, I found myself with ample time before the boys arrived. Deciding to not waste any time, I packed my DSLR and knapsack for a quick trip to . . . nowhere? I wasn’t sure where I wanted to go, I only knew that I wanted to go somewhere. Digging through my memory, I knew that one of the museums in Paris was free on a certain day at a certain time. Originally wanting to visit Le Louvre for the (in)famous pyramid photo, I walked by Musée d’Orsay and its bustling nightly event. I wasn’t entirely sure what was going on that night, but people were lined up around the block in the rain! Which brings me to my next point, Paris is not as romantic as it seems from those Hollywood movies. Paris in the rain? Pas bon. I can confirm that there was not a stitch of romance when everything was cold and wet. To add to that, all the cobblestone roads were slick and black from the evening showers. Thankfully I brought a trusty umbrella, which will be featured in many posts to come because it had rained in almost every location I visited.

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Classic or cliché?

Strolling past the sights alone brought back many memories of the last time I was in Paris. I had toured around France when I was younger with my family. The Eiffel Tower didn’t look so big anymore. The buildings weren’t as grand. The Parisian accent, not as charming. However, making the most of my time there, I skipped along the Seine River and admired the Big Wheel on Place de la Concorde. As I grew accustomed to the Métro, it was nice to be surrounded by French again. Coming from Canada, we learned French as a second language in school. I can imagine living in a French-speaking country and quickly attaining fluency.

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Exploring rainy Paris: right in front of Le Louvre with the Big Wheel at Place de la Concorde in the background.

When the boys texted me that they had just landed in France, I took the Métro back to the hostel. While waiting in the room, my friend, Flora, messaged me about Bruno Mars tickets. I was a little skeptical at first because they were quite expensive, but I decided that I’ve recently taken up the hobby of attending concerts and it’d be a great experience seeing one in Switzerland. It was my first time making a large online purchase in Europe, so I was quite surprised on how easy it was to navigate the site when everything was in German. Flash forward to future online purchases where it was not as smooth.

Once Alex, Brandon, and Zach arrived, we immediately went to bed to rest before the following day’s excursion: Reims. Taking the early train out, we were surprised by the number of people who had the same idea as us. Unsurprisingly, they were all out there to drink champagne in Champagne too. In the adjacent train compartment, Alex and Zach immediately noticed that our neighbours were from New Jersey and Princeton. It turns out that little group of Americans were second degree connections. We had two champagne tastings lined up through the day, so we could not diddle-dawdle with our newfound friends. Walking through the narrow streets of Reims, I imagined what Belle from Beauty and the Beast might have felt like living in a small Provencal town. If I am geographically incorrect, then please excuse my previous Disney reference. Other than that, we sat in the church courtyard and admired its gothic architecture, saw movers attempting to raise a grand piano into a second-floor apartment, and ate a lot of bread for the rest of the day.

Our first stop was the Taittinger Champagne House, one of the oldest family-owned estates in the region. I’ve actually seen this label in the local liquor store back at home! Excited to try some world-famous champagne in Champagne, I wasn’t expecting an educational experience with my drink. In short, we were told the historical significance of the caves and the process in which champagne is made. There was a lot of turnover in hands when it came to this particular champagne house, especially during times of war, but it has consistently produced wines fit for royalty throughout history. You can find more information here or maybe visit for yourself.

As for the process of making champagne, the guide couldn’t stress enough that only champagnes produced in the region are called “champagne”. Everything else is simply sparkling wine. This defining factor will later be seen in Venice. What makes the production so unique is the meticulous fermenting and pressurizing stages to give the drink that extra oomph. I wish I could write this in a more sophisticated manner, such that it matches the caliber of these celebratory drinks, but all I can think about is that fish obsessed with bubbles from Finding Nemo. Perhaps referring to the photos below would give a better idea on how all of this goes down.

The tasting consisted of two glasses of champagne, one sampling of their most popular selection and one sampling of their reserves. Although I do not remember which one was which, the two champagnes differed in sweetness, which is measured on a scale of brut to doux (or sec?). I personally enjoyed the brut reserve which was crisp and sweet.

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Just a glassful of bubblies.

For lunch, Zach had found a quaint local restaurant called Au Plat du Jour that served homey French cuisine. The interior resembled someone’s own home, decorated somewhat like how an elderly grandmother would layout her family kitchen. The entire menu was in French and the waiters spoke little English. The boys definitely let me test out my rusty French skills when trying to differentiate between different fish dished. At one point, I could only mutter pomme de terre and lapin when ordering. Although language may have been an issue, the food was not. It was delicious. We eventually ordered something from their “Menu of the Day” and paired it with a white wine. In hindsight, we didn’t need more wine with our meal because the next leg of our champagne tour was just around the corner.

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Un plat du pomme de terre, s’il vous plaît!

Walking off the beef stew and tasty gelato, we arrived at Champagne Pommery just in time for our second tasting of the day. Headed by Louise Pommery in the 1800s, this unique ownership proves that the term Madame of the House came with responsibility. I could only imagine how difficult it was to run a business as a female in that day and age. Down in the cellars, you could see the decades through the layer of dust on each bottle. Pommery caves also had several art installations, projecting unique lighting patterns across the walls. The damp clay that surrounded us visitors also provided an opportunity to carve our names into history. However, the coolest part of the tour was the champagne show. When presented at the tasting, the sommelier/bartender did a little dance when he poured our drinks. The display of blue and gold was particularly pretty. At this point, this would have been my fourth glass of wine that day. Even though our drinking schedule was spaced out, I think it was safe to call it a day.

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Champagne Pommery grounds.

While Alex and Brandon slept off their champagne troubles, Zach and I decided to explore a nearby park. There was a child’s playground and some odd looking exercise machines that I thought were only found in Asia. In true Grace fashion, I attempted to fit in all of these contraptions, only to regret my decision when I became stuck in a go-kart. We trailed our way through the lush foliage, something that I didn’t expect to grow so soon in early spring. We came across a bench that perched upon a hill that overlooked a track field. As the other two followed our GPS signal, Zach and I were visited by a couple of French dogs! Other than saying “votre chien est très mignon”, it was quite obvious to the owners that we adored their pets.

Finally finding the way back to the Reims train station, our Asian glow guiding the way, I was relieved to have bought a baguette for the ride into Paris. However, that wasn’t even our last stop. Alex mentioned that Le Louvre was free on Friday nights and as Asians, how could be not take advantage of that offer? Since it was Brandon’s first time in Paris, we 100% needed to go see the Mona Lisa. The journey, and I actually mean journey when you have to navigate through a sea of tourists, to the famous painting was long and treacherous. Sliding between screaming children, slow-paced couples, and the stationary art critic, the four of us finally made it. Trying to take a solo photo with Mona? Forget it. Learn how to use Photoshop. There’s a saying in Chinese “九个屁股, 半张脸”, referencing this exact situation of trying to take a decent photo, but only getting other people in the same shot. Hence the crop you will see below.

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Is the Mona Lisa cropped or photoshopped? You decide.

Personally having already seen the Mona Lisa, I was more interested in the adjacent painting. You had most likely mistaken it as the Last Supper, which is by DaVinci and located in Milan. This one is Les Noces de Cana, by Veronese. Depicting the first miracle performed by Jesus according to the Gospel of John, the large format amplifies the symbolism of the story. As always, you’ll have to see if for yourself.

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Alex and Brandon crashing the Les Noces de Cana.

As we were rushed out of Le Lourve for their closing time, I saw people pose in the most ridiculous of fashions to parallel with the marble statues in the great hall. I remember when I was younger, my family and I spent half-a-day in the museum and didn’t get a chance to browse all the rooms. This time around, it seemed like history repeated itself. The question remains, how long is too long in Le Louvre? Or how long does it take to see Le Louvre in its entirety? Can you do it in one sitting? I’d personally love to spend another day just to admire the architecture of the building. Not just the external pyramids that many love, but also the interior details that frame each picture.

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En pointe. Thanks to my amazing photographer, Zach!

Back at the hostel, Brandon broke out the Monopoly GO game and a mini bottle of champagne we had bought in Reims earlier that day. We had to finish the bottles before leaving because (a) it wouldn’t fit in our carry-on and (b) it shouldn’t be in our carry-on in the first place. It was a sound sleep, even if friendships were broken during the game. Nothing compared to Catan, but we no longer want to play with strategic Zach.

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In hindsight, we may have bought one too many bottles of wine that night. Les Caves du Forum is located in Reims and has an extensive collection of wines from the region.

In the morning, we quickly packed our bags for a full day in Paris. I don’t remember visiting Saint-Eustache during my first trip to Paris, so it was a nice change in scenery. As always, I was particularly interested in the architecture of the church. The east wing was absolutely stunning, a little corner dedicated to Mother Mary. There’s peace and solace found in the busy city. From there we took the Métro to the base of Champs d’Elysee. Prior to our shopping spree, we popped into the Grand Palasis for a little cultural education. There are security checks at the front gates, so make sure to empty your pockets to speed up the process. Even though this was my first time visiting this attraction, I really don’t remember much. There were art installations inside, but I was more interested in the garden grounds outside. Perhaps it was the sunshine and friends, but Paris felt a little better.

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Alex was unimpressed with the early rise. Brandon and I were pretty okay with it.

As for the Champs d’Elysee, this high-end shopping street is notorious for thieves. Keep your handbags close and your wits even closer. When entering the Métro, a young woman posed as a surveyor to get close to others and their colleague would inconspicuously sneak a hand into your jacket pocket. Although we were targets, we did not succumb. Zach had everything locked down and immediately pushed the pair away when they approached us. All we wanted to do was walk down the street to get a cliché photo of the Arc de Triomphe. Centred in the middle of a roundabout, you’ll have to go underground to cross. There’s a strip divider for bidirectional traffic and that’s a prime location to take a posed photo in front of the monument. However, I recommend a little sided photo, where you can get a little bit of Parisian flair in your background. Sometimes a picture can be too perfected when the subject is smack in the middle.

In light of all this chaos, I finally had a chance to visit the original Laudrée. Alex and Brandon weren’t particularly interested in the pastries, but Zach was curious on all the hype. We ordered a box of 6 macaroons. My favourite was the pistachio and Zach liked the cherry blossom flavours. The sweets gave a hint of unique flavours and held a crispy shell filled with a fluffy texture. In my honest opinion, I don’t think Laudrée is worth the hype, but they have a beautiful interior and a bustling café for afternoon tea. You can also visit one of their international locations to try it for yourself. I promise it’ll be worth more than plane ticket to Paris.

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Living out that Parisian dream with sweets and pastries.

In the afternoon, we picked up a light snack and continued on our plan. I was pretty excited for the Musée d’Orsay because of its Impressionistic art. As pianist, I enjoy playing Debussy pieces. In other words, the artworks created during this era were reflective of similar themes found in music. Contrasted with the preceding Classical period, the Impressionism movement was depicted light and openness. Monet pieces flowed as realism ebbed. The honest depiction of mundane human emotions contrasted the grandiose of previous movements. On an architectural note, the museum building used to be a train station and the large rafters above give an industrial vibe. Side note on ticket prices, you can visit for free if you fall within the EU student category. Out of all the destinations during this trip, Musée d’Orsay was by far my favourite.

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Musée d’Orsay was definitely a favourite during the trip.

Little did we know that the French follow the Spanish tradition of Siesta and we just marginally missed lunch time. Although I completely support midday naps, they are by far my favourite kind of sleep, it was difficult finding a decent establishment open for a late lunch around 14:30. In North America, some stores are open 24 hours. This lack of options was a big change for us. As we wandered along the Seine for food, we stopped by a couple art stalls lining the river. Also very different from home, the amount of fine art that fills the city. It wasn’t just one type of art, but a multitude of paintings, drawings, and sculptures. The amount of inspiration gives rise to so many opportunities. Unlike the number of opportunities for us to eat a late lunch. As you can tell, even thinking about skipping a meal makes me upset. We eventually settled for riverside bistro called Le Bistrot de Paris. It was perhaps the slowest meal I had in Europe thus far. We came in for early dinner and I guess the chefs were still on break mode. However, the food was tasty, albeit a little buttery for my palate.

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When in Paris, have ramen? Check out Ippudo if you’re missing some decent Asian food.

With filled tummies and a late evening, the boys and I headed towards the Eiffel Tower. A beacon in Paris, this is tourist central regardless of what time you visit. There are many travel bloggers who recommend certain times of the day, just to avoid the crowds, but you should always expect people in your photo. The best time is probably early in the morning, where the lineups are also shorter for the ride up. The elevator is divided into sections and the ticketing booth will explain how the system works. To go to the very top, make sure to switch contraptions in the middle of the ride. Since this is an open concept tower, I’d suggest bringing a light coat and tying back long hair. Both as a logical suggestion and from personal experience. Since the queue was quite long during our night visit, the boys and I huddled to conserve warmth. This was when I realized how close Alex and Zach were in terms of bromance. Brandon and I, on the other hand, just shared a set of earphones and prayed that we didn’t freeze before going up. The line itself moved quickly, but the security check could be an issue. Many people forget to empty their pockets or attempt to bring up their whole luggage, which slows down the process significantly. In terms of ticket prices, again, being a student has its perks. They are pretty lax at the gate in the form of identification, so flashing your (expired) foreign student card shouldn’t be an issue.

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Eiffel Tower shenanigans with the boys.

As always, the view from any tall building is absolutely stunning. The two times I visited Paris, I ascended the Eiffel Tower during the night. The subtle glow and cool wind is what inspires those writers and artists to pursue romance in the City of Light. This was perhaps why I always thought Paris was shiny. However, if I ever return, I’d like to visit during the day time. It will certainly give a different atmosphere. Even more so, I’d like to take that iconic photo on top of slanted steps with the Eiffel Tower in the background. If anyone could tell me where to find that spot, then please let me know in the comment section below!

With perhaps borderline frostbite (okay, not really), the four of us returned to our quarters. I went to bed immediately because I had to catch a 07:00 flight back to Zürich. However, the boys had one more entire day to explore. I’m quite happy with returning on a Sunday morning because I can relax (read as: recuperate) before Monday classes. It’s always a struggle to wake up for morning flights, but throughout these travels, I realized it is seriously a combination of will power and preparation. My recommendation is to pack everything the night before and only leave out the things you’ll need in the morning in a separate bag. This way, after using everything, putting it all together is not a matter of organizing the items into scattered compartments. Finally, utilize your resources. Don’t be cheap and take public transit if you know you’ll be late for your flight. On more than one occasion I’d sleep through my 5:00 alarm and scurry into a taxi about an hour later. Budget for that kind of backup.

As the majority of the logistics were scattered throughout this post, I’ll try to summarize the main findings of travelling in Paris:

  1. If you can, try to fly into ORY instead of CDG.
  2. Book airport train tickets in advance or carry spare change for ticketing machines to avoid long queues.
  3. Buy carnets instead of individual tickets (it’s always worth it because you will inevitably get lost at least once on the Parisian Métro).
  4. When staying in hostels, book rooms on upper floors and away from elevators.
  5. Certain museums are free on weekday or weekend evenings, take advantage of those savings!
  6. If you’re a student, BRING YOUR STUDENT ID EVERYWHERE (even if you can’t use it, some gatekeepers are more lenient).
  7. Be mindful of your belongings in crowded places.
  8. Meal times should be reserved for 11:00 – 13:00 and 17:00 – 22:00.
  9. Wake up early and visit the most popular sites first, shorter wait times and less people.
  10. Budget for unexpected late wake-up calls and take a taxi to catch that early morning flight.

Before I end this ridiculously long entry, there’s one more comparison that might be of interest to you. Swiss Air is favourite airline thus far. Flying back to Zürich, I had the lucky chance to experience the exceptional service and tasty food onboard.  They give you chocolates! In future travels, although a little expensive, it is always worth it to fly with this particular airline. And with that, I bid thee adieu! Au revoir tout le monde!

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