From the East Coast, I flew to London, so the travel time from the USA to Europe is fairly short, and I love taking the train between London and Paris (takes only two and a half hours). My ears kept on popping as the Eurostar fast train rushed through tunnels before heading to open space. As the bullet train between London and Paris sped through the English countryside, rolling hills of greens undulated, as black and white fat cows barely look in the direction of the train. It's been said that the speeding train is so fast, the lazy cows can't follow it with their gaze, and gave up trying.
Tourists in May in Paris can have a great time -- hotels are cheaper, lines are shorter, and restaurant waiters are nicer.
When I first climbed the Eiffel Tower, I stood in line like everyone else, but soon realized that you don't have to wait for hours if you go up the thousands of stairs, you get a great exercise, it's a nice challenge, and you can gloat about it later.
This time around, I decided that I would finally "do the catacombs'' (faire les catacombes), the secret network of underground streets running underneath each street of Paris. The réseau has been open and shut sporadically throughout the years, as many rave parties have doomed it to obscurity for months at the time. And then there were the famed rats. I guess that was my main fear. The only public entrance to the Catacombes is from under the mighty lion sculpture on the Place Denfert Rochereau, in the 14th arrondissement. It is a very alternative experience, to say the least.
Let me explain the arrondissements.
The city proper of Paris has 20 arrondissements, or districts, numbered from 1 to 20, with the first one at the heart of Paris, and the other ones "snailing" out clockwise, with the 20th ending at the lower right hand side of a map, as seen from the sky. Parisians traditionally use their numbers to position themselves in the city. For example one would say: "I live in the 5th arrondissement, but I work in the 16th."
The city was once Roman and called Lutèce. Some remnants of stone walls and many entrance arches to the enclosed city are still there, proofs of the highly skilled Roman architects. Each of the 20 districts has its own mayor, city hall, firefighters, and all the attributes of a small town. And yet, it's still the City of Paris.
So Paris is a snail, in many ways, including traffic-wise. What is called the embouteillages (traffic jams) have to be one of the most annoying thing about the capital. Luckily, the subway and bus networks are amazing, fast, mostly modern, and fairly cheap. The Métro is easy to use, even if you don't speak a word of French, you can follow the routes on graphic maps located in every station.
In Paris, scooters are king. The queens are the rented bicycles Velipeds. The very popular program took off almost instantly among Parisians, business people, shopping moms, or students alike. You stick your credit card in a machine and for a few Euros, you get a bike for an hour or less, or more, that you can return at any terminal station, strategically placed every few blocks in the entire city. You get charged only for the time you use the bicycle. If you don't return it though, you're in trouble, meaning the system will charge late fees directly into your credit card. The bikes are everywhere and they even have their own special lanes in some streets, sharing with buses and taxis, sometimes a scary proposition. The bikes have an internal mechanism that makes them a little heavy, so it's hard to climb up to Montmartre, or some other steep hill, if you're not a regular biking practitioner.
The majestic opera house of Paris, the Palais Garnier, is one of the city's most beautiful landmarks. You can take a tour and visit the inside of the opera house, with its grand foyer, majestic staircases, imposing and graceful architectural details. Guides will even tell you about the persistent legend of the underneath lake and the famous phantom. Even most Parisians don't know that the avenue de L'Opéra, leading to the opera house, is not lined with trees like most avenues of Paris because its master architect, Charles Garnier, did not want anything to block the view of the building, so he instructed the urban planners of the time to never plant anything along the way leading to his structure. To this day, the city respects that ordinance.
Every public or private museum in Paris has at least one day, or one evening, each week that offers free entrance. Some have a no-charge-ever policy for students, the unemployed, or kids. Even the popular Musée du Louvre has days and times when the entry fee is waived. It is possible to visit most of the museums for free if you plan well. And of course the hundreds of private art galleries around the city are always free to visit.
Besides eating, walking in Paris is my favorite thing to do. You can go up a hill on a cobblestoned street and find a cathedral; you can pace an oak alley among tombstones, climb mounds of soft grass leading to a temple. Every neighborhood has a story to tell, and Paris being such an old lady, most street have grand facades, courtyards, gardens, Roman remnants, bizarre adornments and relics of past history. Paris has a lot of parks and greenery; about 40 locations are named gardens.
One of the charming ways to walk among flowers is to follow the Promenade Plantée, a 3-mile long green lane in the 12th arrondissement, that follows an abandoned railway line, similar to the High Line in New York City. My favorite place is the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont, a huge public space on top of a hill in the 19th arrondissement that offers great views of the city below. Besides up and down paths, the park has a temple, grottos that echo, and an artificial lake.
The sidewalks enduring annoyances (aka doggies' poop) of Paris are still a big problem and it will take generations before Parisians carry little plastic bags to put away their dogs' affairs. So un-chic. Parisians consider it fair game if their pooch simply goes outside.
The month of May in Paris is almost always the traditional time for strikes. Perhaps because the weather gets better and it's that much easier to walk outside in protest with fair temperature -- perhaps, too, because as the air gets hotter, so do tempers. Many social revolutions have started in May in France, from students protests to truck drivers airing dissatisfaction, from train conductors wanting more money, to street sweepers needing more benefits.
A wonderful thing in Paris in the summer (July-August) is how late the day lingers. Until 10 or 11 p.m., you are still outside in daylight. Having dinner at terraces when the light is still warm is amazing. You can catch a late movie and come out before it's dark outside. And in the western part of France, in Brittany, in June, the daylight stretches all the way to midnight.