I’m going to kick off this series of posts, about my latest trip to Paris, with a disclaimer. I’m a pretty practical, rather laid back, person. I can dress up when I need to but I love my jeans, t-shirts and my Converse and I haven’t worn heels in years. I’ll spend money on camera equipment and art supplies before makeup and accessories. That practicality spills over in to my travel, so you aren’t going to read about a trip to Louis Vuitton or my favorite French skincare product. I’m not going to tell you all the, “see and be seen,” hot spots in Paris because they aren’t on my radar; I much prefer a simple cafe with tables out front where I can people watch. You won’t hear about the high end hotel I stayed in because, to me, it is a place to sleep in between exploring, not a place to spend significant amounts of time. So long as it is clean, has a bathroom and a comfortable bed, and is in a central location, I’m happy.
Most importantly, this won’t be an idealistic, highlight reel account of the trip. You won’t be left with the impression that a sudden rain shower transformed me in to Audrey Hepburn and made me want to spin and sing in the middle of the cobblestone street. Truthfully? Cobblestone is hard enough to walk on, let alone spin and sing on, and when it rained (often) I was more concerned with keeping my camera dry.
I am a photographer and artist, first and foremost, so I am here to share my work but I also want to share some of my favorite moments about the trip: the food, the sights and the people, as well as give you some practical advice. I believe that expectation drives a great deal of our actual experiences when traveling, so, if I am going to share those things, it is my responsibility to provide the realistic, not idealistic or romanticized, view of Paris or any city. It’s one of the many reasons I love Rick Steves and read his guides before every trip.
To make this easier to read, I am going to break this up in to a series of posts with the first being about our stay in Montmartre.
Disclaimer finished (phew), let’s get to it…
Part One: Our Stay in Montmartre
In previous trips to Paris, while I had explored Montmartre, I had never stayed there. My husband and I prefer to stay outside the fray, and away from throngs of tourists, so we decided to rent an apartment in Montmartre, close to the Métro, so we could easily get wherever we needed to go.
Paris is a city, like any other. No matter where you stay, including Montmartre, you are likely to hear noise, whether it’s late nighters at the local cafes and bars or loud diesel cars and scooters. There is a life to Paris that doesn’t end at 8 pm. If you are looking to completely get away from the buzz of the city, consider staying outside of Paris but, if you’re okay with it, I highly recommend a stay in Montmartre. With the exception of the tourist heavy area around Sacré-Cœur, you are more easily able to break away from the craziness.
I used AirBNB to find a wonderful apartment about a five minute walk from the Abbesses stop and just around the corner from Sacré-Cœur. Whether you use them or other sites likes One Fine Stay or Paris Perfect, you may find that renting an apartment for a week long stay is much more economical than a hotel. In our case, we spent about half of what we would have for a hotel and had way more privacy, as well as ammenities otherwise lacking in a hotel. (remember, I’m practical, I am more likely to get excited about the use of a washing machine than an overpriced spa treatment)
Speaking of the ammenities, we went to the local grocery store and stocked the kitchen with some essentials. Having a few meals at, “home,” rather than eating every meal out allowed us to save our money for a treat at nicer spots. (Practicality doesn’t negate a love of food right?) The washing machine meant we could pack less and didn’t have to pay high prices for laundry service at a hotel. I will admit, as I didn’t have a full understanding of how it worked, and didn’t ask, I managed to break the washing machine so this particular savings was a wash, pardon the pun. *sigh* It ended up being a 79 euro mistake that will ensure I ask future hosts exactly how their machine works. European appliances can be much different than those in the States so if you aren’t sure how to use it, ask.
“The French have the perfect word for it: ‘flaneur.’ It means to stroll around aimlessly but enjoyably, observing life and your surroundings” – Gemma Burgess
The art of flaneur…
Montmartre is a wonderful area to explore without intent. It’s small enough that it’s difficult to get lost but big enough that it can take a few days to take it in, and every turn will provide you with a delightful new view. It reminds me a great deal of San Francisco, as it is situated on large hills, so be prepared for some hiking. Even if you don’t stay in Montmartre, definitely consider exploring it, if you are able, as it is very much worth it.
We went out very early on Sunday morning, before too many people hit the streets, and it was such a departure from the night before when we walked down the lively rue des Abbesses for gelato. The peace and serenity, coupled with the beautiful morning light, made the experience heavenly and was, by far, our favorite part of the trip. Walking up the rue de l’Abreuvoir (photograph above), with the sun spilling over the top of Sacré-Cœur, the calm of the space around us, was truly magical.
The views of Paris, from Montmartre, are breathtaking. The photo at the top of the post, “The View,” was shot from a small street to the right of Sacré-Cœur. No matter how many times I have come around that bend, the first time I see the Eiffel Tower, I hold my breath as, close up, or far away, it is truly one of the most amazing pieces of architecture.
Beyond the views of the tower, take a peek down any number of streets, down the expanse of hills and you will enjoy some of the most delightful sites. The traditional Paris rooftops, with their little orange chimney stacks, coupled with the varied heights of the buildings gives it an almost whimsical feeling.
The second photograph in the post, “Sunday Morning in Montmartre,” was one of those long shots down a steep decline. We turned around and the sun was hitting the various buildings so perfectly, my husband said it almost looked like sheet music.
The art of flaneur is something that can and should be applied everywhere. Why not take a stroll in your own neighborhood to see what you may have missed?
The Paris Métro…
The Métro, short for Métropolitain, is the city’s rapid transit system. While Paris is a very walkable city, and walking is much preferred over pricier options such as cabs, the Métro comes in handy for the longer distances. The map makes it seem like a complicated system, especially if you are not used to taking public transportation, however, once you start using it, it becomes old hat. All of the Métro lines are given numbers, and corresponding colors, which head in two directions. (the other train system, the RER, uses letters and corresponding colors) Each line meets up in various spots for connections, typically with a bit of a hike between train lines so be prepared. Once you get off your train, you will either be able to exit (or, “sortie” in French) the station or follow signs to get to the next platform.
There are several lines that run through Montmartre, however the most popular is the 12 (dark green on the map), the Abbesses stop being the busiest. Just outside the Abbesses stop is the Jehan Rictus garden square which is home to the very popular mural, “The Wall of Love.” The wall, created in 2000, is made up of 612 lava tiles with the phrase, “I Love You,” written 311 times in 250 different languages. Beautiful, right?
The Abbesses train stop is the deepest station in Paris at 40 meters or 131 feet. A tip? While the spiral staircase in the station is delightful, it’s also a long haul so look for the elevators which run constantly. They aren’t difficult to find as you will notice most locals automatically head for them.
If you’re not looking for a hike up a large hill, the Abbesses stop will get you about halfway up with the use of the elevator. The Anvers and Pigalle stops, on the number 2 line, will let you off at the very bottom, just down from the Moulin Rouge, and you will be in for a bit of a hike if you opt not to use the funicular.
A few general pointers about the Paris Métro system:
- Always keep your ticket handy as you may be asked for it at any time. We were stopped between connections at least three times and the fines for those without a valid ticket are steep.
- I mentioned it before but it bares repeating… be prepared for a long haul between connections and definitely prepare yourself for a lot of stairs. There are several connections where you will feel like you may as well have walked to your final destination.
- Never count on the Métro to get you anywhere on time. While it is more reliable than other systems, it isn’t perfect. Between construction, slow downs and the time it takes to get between platforms for connections, allow yourself extra time.
- Train strikes happen on a rolling schedule in Paris and, as of this post, there are a number of strikes scheduled, in blocks of a couple days at a time. The great thing is, you know ahead of time what days they will happen and the RER lines are impacted more than the Métro. However, when one section strikes others may strike in solidarity so always be prepared. While it doesn’t bring everything to a screeching halt, it can slow things down so Google, “Paris train strikes,” to see if any are going on during your visit.
- Always keep an eye on your belongings and those traveling with you. Like any public transit system, theft is a problem. Pickpockets are very good, and very fast, at what they do. Both my camera bag, and my tote, have zippers and we always keep our money and passports in a secured bag under our jackets and shirts. If someone asks you for money, give it if you want to, but only if you have it handy; never pull your wallet out because you will put yourself at risk of having it snatched. (same goes for your smartphone!)
- All that said, be sure to take in the surroundings because, while the Paris subway, like any subway, can be a harsh place, it can also be beautiful with street musicians and artists as well as the decor of the subways themselves.
Where we ate…
I mentioned that we opted to have a few of our meals in but we did take advantage of some spots , in Montmartre, that I would go back to in a heartbeat. Many thanks goes out to Frédérique, our host, who gave us these recommendations. (If you are looking for a wonderful, well appointed and reasonably priced place to stay, check out her flat here.)
Pain Pain (88 rue des Martyrs)
I love pastries. I love bread. I love anything sweet. I love just about anything that I’m not supposed to, but given how much walking we did, we decided that calories didn’t count for the week. When we checked in, Frédérique told us at least five times we had to check out this bakery and I’m so happy she did. Just a short walk away from the apartment, we headed over one morning for some pain au chocolat and a traditional baguette. My husband, who is the furthest thing from a sweet tooth, opted to also get a pistacio eclair and loved it.
No matter what time of day you go, it will be busy however go early to ensure you get what you want (though not too early because they don’t always have everything out).
Most of the people behind the counter speak English although some better than others. As always, I recommend asking, in French, if they speak English as it is the more polite approach and will get you off on the right foot. Once you have that squared away, order one of everything… ok not really but seriously, we went back twice and only ate one thing we didn’t particularly love. (and that was only because they were out of pain au chocolat)
They also have several delicious varieties of quiche, as well as a coffee bar, so you can get your savory and sweet in one spot. Run, don’t walk, to Pain Pain if you stay in Montmartre. Go often, get as much as you can then walk it off later. Believe me, it’s worth it.
Aux Trois Petits Cochons (28 rue La Vieuville)
Another recommendation by Frédérique, we were lucky enough to have this right across the street. This restaurant originally opened elsewhere in Paris from 1995 until 2012 and then reopened in Montmartre in 2013.
I can’t stress enough how amazing the food was from start to finish. We went twice and not because it was convenient to the apartment. Everything is homemade and the menu is updated every day.
Like many Parisian restaurants, they have a pre-fixe menu where you can choose between a starter and main course or a main course and desert or the full selection of starter, main course and dessert. We opted to share a dessert and both get starters and main courses and they were okay with that. The wine selection is large and they will provide recommendations.
Everything was fresh and harmonious, not a single flavor out of place. The atmosphere is casual and comfortable, yet still refined, and the staff is wonderful. Even if you don’t opt to stay in Montmartre for your visit, I highly recommend making a reservation and trying out Aux Trois Petits Cochons.
Even if you decide to stay elsewhere in Paris, please consider taking the Métro to Montmartre and walking around. Tuck yourself back in to some of the charming, non-tourist areas of the village and you will be delighted with it’s charm.
I will be posting the remaining parts of the series over the next week so check back and please feel free to comment on your own experiences with Montmartre, as I would love to hear them.
Many of the images shown in this post are already available in my shop so please feel free to check them out!