For most Americans, their first trip abroad includes a mandatory visit to the City of Light. I just left Paris a few days ago, and I am happy to say that, contrary to what you may hear on the news, it isn’t yet a radical Islamic colony bent on killing infidels like you and I. It’s actually relatively safe to travel there, but a vacation in Paris can be a bit scary and confusing for a first-timer, so I thought I would pass along my hard-earned wisdom for those of you who’ve yet to go.
When to go-
Vignette-It’s early June, and I’m wearing a T shirt, which is just the right thing to do if you’re at Disney World this time of year. However, I am in Paris, it’s igloo cold, and it’s raining. Not a quick downpour, either, mind you. No, this is a slow, steady drizzle of the type that makes you want to stay inside and curl up with a good book….but that, of course, is in direct conflict with your plans to actually see something while you’re here. A man of normal intellect would have checked the weather forecast before he left, but I just assumed that, in early summer, anyplace south of Oslo would have fine weather by this time. Of course, you know what happens when you assume anything…Memo to me, the idiot-next time, believe what the weatherman says-yes, it really can be cold, wet, and miserable in Paris as late as mid-summer.
Advice-In the middle of summer, you will face mile-long lines and the kind of heat that makes even the most hardened Floridian wither. In the late spring/early summer, you can face cold, rainy days…PLUS long lines. Winter? Why fight snow and slush, when you can go instead in the glorious fall of the year, when the lines are short and the weather is perfect? October brings cool, crisp autumn weather and clear skies for the most part. The leaves are changing color, and the Champs de Mars beckons….picnic in the park, anyone? Plus, the kids are back in school and the vacationers have gone home. You won’t exactly have the city all to yourself, but you’ll enjoy it a whole lot more. A good alternative would be early spring.
How to get around-
Vignette-I’m standing in a Paris Metro (underground) subway car, and the crowd, which resembles the characters from the 3rd world bazaar scene in “Casablanca”, is pressing in all around me. At every stop, Africans in full native regalia, Muslims pushing multi-strollers, Asians jabbering in an alien tongue, and even the occasional White guy is pushing to squeeze into the absurdly overstuffed compartment. It’s impossible to move, so I hug the central pole like a fireman and try to hold my nose above the stench layer. The train stops, the doors open, and I forcibly squeeze my way out to start the long, desperate ascent to freedom, which can only be accessed via decaying stairway tunnels decorated with cracked concrete and bare wire. I round a corner where a filthy vagrant begs for money, and make it to an intersection just in time to see two laughing hoodlums without tickets leap across the turnstile. Huffing and puffing, I’ve only two more flights to go now, so I try to hold my breath through the Death Zone, where the stench of urine is so powerful it can make a grown man cry, yet I almost succumb to it just before I summit. But then, finally, a ray of light pierces the utter darkness that is the Paris Metro system, and I pop my head up through the sidewalk suddenly to gasp for air, like a man delivered from the very maw of Hades, blinking in wonder at my surroundings, which have suddenly become civilized…even sophisticated…and that’s when I realize I have been transported in an instant from a hellish dystopian nightmare into a beautiful pearl of the Belle Epoque era, the 7th arrondissement of Paris in all its glory, which leaves me wondering, and not for the first time, why I didn’t simply stay here to begin with?
Advice-Avoid the Metro. If you must use public transportation, take the bus. Avoid taxis as well, even though they are plentiful here, as they will rip you off as badly as a Catalonian cabbie, using a game in which the final total you see isn’t really complete until, just as you pull up to your destination, up to 7 Euro is gratuitously added to the tab at the last second when the driver pushes a series of magic buttons which are either “hotel call fees” or “taxes” depending on who you ask. Use Uber instead-it cuts the taxi thieves out of the picture completely, and it will save you money. Cab companies are an industry that surely deserves to die an ugly death. At one time, they provided a valuable service. Now, they only seem to be employment centers for otherwise unassimilable “immigrants”. They’ve brought it on themselves. Good riddance, and the sooner the better! Better yet, walk to your destination…Paris is one of the world’s great walking cities. Enjoy it! Walk along the Seine from the Eiffel Tower to Notre Dame. You won’t notice the distance until your feet complain at the end of the day. But of course, this advice is only possible if you’re staying near the most popular sights, which brings me to the next question…
Where to Stay-
Vignette-I am looking at the Eiffel Tower from my room at the Hilton. It shimmers in the noonday sun like a mirage. At the front desk, the English-speaking concierge recommends a fine restaurant nearby and offers to make my reservations for me. I walk out the front door and stroll to the Champs de Mars in mere minutes and am able, from there, to explore the wonders of the City of Light on foot.
If you can afford to, stay within walking distance of the major Left Bank attractions. That will mean that you only need transportation to the 18th (Sacre Coeur), Versailles, or possibly the Champs Elysee. Yes, you will pay more. That said, you’ll save a little money and a lot of worry by doing so. If you’re like most Americans, you’ll have only a few days, or maybe a week, in the city. Do you really want to spend your valuable time trying to figure out the Paris Metro system? And let’s not forget the horrors of that system as detailed above. Some people will tell you to save a buck and stay in the 18th. Don’t. For first time visitors, stay in the 1st, 6th, or 7th and you can’t go wrong. It doesn’t have to a be a luxury palace. I once stayed in an apartment on my own that was perfectly satisfactory. That said, there are advantages to staying in a full-service facility. As noted, the concierge will help you, the cabbie won’t be able to drive around aimlessly while explaining that he can’t find your pied-a-terre as the meter racks up an enormous bill, and generally everything will work, including the lift (which I didn’t have in my apartment).
What to see-
Vignette-Watch “European Vacation” with Chevy Chase, especially the Louvre scene.
Advice-I won’t tell you what to see, because everyone’s interests are different. If you aren’t an art lover, skip the Louvre and Musee D’Orsay (don’t get the vapors-seeing things in any place isn’t a contest-it’s about what you want, not everybody else). If you don’t care about fine dining, don’t spend your time trying to snare reservations at Aspic. If architecture isn’t your thing, skip Versailles. What I can tell you is to plan some “fat” into your schedule. Don’t be that guy-the one who tries to see the Louvre in an hour. Allow plenty of time not only for whatever you want to see, but also for unexpected pleasures-a stroll through a quiet park, a cup of coffee in a bookstore, or a simple picnic. This takes some planning. Sit down with your S.O. and figure out in advance what you’re going to see using easily available resources such as Trip Advisor or Rick Steves. In fact, I wouldn’t go to any European city without my Rick Steves book. Figure out how much time each attraction will take, then add a few hours. A good general rule of thumb is don’t do more than two major sites a day. Your feet will thank you, and so will your spouse. Take it easy.
The one piece of unequivocal advice I will give you is don’t think you must go to the steps of the Sacre Coeur at sunset as some kind of pilgrimage, unless you like mixing with dirtbags, pickpockets, lousy art students, and hordes of Asian tourists. The view doesn’t even include the Eiffel Tower (unless you go to the top of the church’s dome-good luck with that). There are plenty of better places to see the city spread out before you at dusk, many of which involve seats at a table with a nice glass of Bordeaux.
But since most of you will want to see the following museums and wonders, I’ll give you a bit of advice on:
Vignette-I am standing in front of the pyramid entry for the Louvre, and the line snakes out the door hundreds of yards into the lawn in the middle of the museum grounds. Dismayed, I search desperately for an alternative entry point but don’t see anything. I approach a gendarme and, using my almost forgotten high school French (thanks, Mr. Bauer!) from eons ago, ask for another entry point. The soldier grins, and points me to the Port de Lions (door of the lions). Using that access point, I avoid the lines altogether, and in fact, upon entry, am able to walk almost immediately into a crowd of tourists snapping photos of the (frankly underwhelming) Mona Lisa.
Advice-Well, duh. Use the Port de Lions on a busy day. Better yet, avoid busy days: that is to say, when the admission is free, on the first Sunday of each month from October to March and Bastille Day (July 14). A tour is also recommended due to the enormous size of this museum. It can be overwhelming if you don’t have a game plan, and the guides are often allowed to skip the regular lines. And remember, Rick Steves is your friend.
The Eiffel Tower-
Vignette-The Jules Verne Restaurant
Advice-If you can’t afford to eat at the Jules Verne, or if, unlike me, you have inherited good planning genes, you can buy your tickets in advance on line. You can also reserve a table at a less expensive tower eatery, the 58 Tour Eiffel, then take an elevator up from there, or even (gasp!) walk up. And remember, the tower is open until about midnight most of the year. It’s less crowded after dark. I wouldn’t bother with a tour company here. It’s just too easy to avoid the lines in other ways, and this isn’t like visiting the Louvre-you can read about the architecture and history very easily as you gawk at the view.
One unfortunate side effect of unbridled Muslim immigration into the EU is the addition of ugly security checkpoints at major tourist attractions. The Eiffel Tower now has a ten-foot wall around the base thanks to the “religion of peace” (TM), and you must pass through a guard checkpoint to get under the tower, which used to be open to pedestrian traffic. Ah, the benefits of multiculturalism!
What to pack-
Advice-Parisians used to dress smartly, but no more. Some do, of course, but there are so many tourists here and so many different cultures mixing that you needn’t feel embarrassed to wear your favorite jeans and a T shirt if that’s what you want. Just wear clothing that makes you feel comfortable and is appropriate for the weather. It isn’t a competition, after all, and in any event all you’re up against, especially if you’re staying in the 18th, is a fat chick wrapped in a burkha like some kind of human burrito or a Chadian afflicted with steatopygia. Still, it’s a good idea if you don’t look like you’re obviously an American tourist. Try to avoid zip-off pants and any team logo shirts and such.
Advice-It’s wrong to think that a Frenchman will scoff at you if your French isn’t perfect. Making an effort is worth it, even if your Alabama high school education didn’t get you much past “Hey, garcon!”, not only because it can get you better service and help you to grow as a person (see the “What to See” anecdote above), but because it’s priceless the first time you get a response in the same language, or you are handed a menu completely in French, in implicit recognition of the fact that they think you’re a native. Besides, think about it this way. Reverse the situation. How would you feel if Pierre came to the USA and just started asking you questions in French? You wouldn’t like it, right? Well, ‘nuff said.
How long should you stay?
Advice-Take at least 5 days. If there’s one thing Americans do badly on vacation, it’s trying to do too much in too little time. That’s stressful on you and makes you a rude and obnoxious guest. Do yourself a favor. Don’t be the ugly American. You’re taking an expensive and exhausting plane flight across 5 or 6 time zones, so take some time to smell the roses when you get there. My advice is, if you only have 2 or 3 days for Paris, don’t bother. Take a cruise instead.
Should I worry about terrorists?
Advice-In a word, no, but if you want to visit this city while it is still recognizably French I would say do it immediately, because the Islamification and Africanizing is advancing rapidly. The deterioration has been noticeable to me, spacing my visits out over 5-7 year periods as I have. But, you really should worry more about aggressive panhandlers and sellers of cheap trinkets that will hassle you on the street than getting blown to bits by a Mohammedan. Pickpockets are also a problem, so take smart precautions…keep your valuables out of sight, either at the hotel room or in hidden pockets, bring only what you really need, and be aware of your surroundings.
That said, I’m serious about the changing demography. If you’ve always wanted to see the Paris of your dreams, it’s probably too late for that already, to be honest with you. But if you don’t want to see the Paris of your nightmares, go now, while it’s still worth seeing, and still quintessentially French.