April has been a busy month for me. Not only did I have several sets of assessments to mark for my students, I had my last few weeks of class for the semester, I’m still trying to figure out my summer plans PLUS I finally have some people coming to visit me in Mulhouse. First up were my dad and younger sister, followed by my friend Anna who I visited in Rouen and finally my twin sister! However, before sharing the little home that I’ve built in Mulhouse with some special people, let me take you back to a weekend at the end of March when it was time for a little weekend away with another special person.
Nina and I first met in Costa Rica when we were 17. We were there on a language and culture exchange and volunteering trip with an organisation called GVI. We immediately hit it off, along with an American girl (shoutout Amanda, we miss you!), and almost seven years later she is still one of my best friends. She has visited me in Dunblane and I’ve visited her at home in Grantham and many times in London where she is currently studying medicine. Because of her studies, she doesn’t have a lot of time for holidays or trips but we figured out that it’s actually quicker for her to get the Eurostar to Paris than for me to get the train there from Mulhouse! Honestly, it would be rude not to take advantage of that and meet in the middle. We still had to make it a quick trip, arriving around 10am on Saturday morning and leaving at 8pm on Sunday evening, bringing us to just shy of 36 hours in Paris.
It seems to be becoming a habit that I go to Paris and try to fit as much in as possible in as short an amount of time as possible. It’s hardly fair for a city that has so much to show for itself. Last time I was there was for 12 hours which really wasn’t enough. I got caught up in the bustling energy and overwhelming size – and not in a good way. This time I was back for 36 hours on a weekend with glorious weather and it couldn’t have been more different – I got caught up in the magic and romance of Paris, of the city itself, falling in love with it again in the way only Paris can make you. I remember on my first visit to Paris when I was a teenager, being convinced that I would live there one day. However, the more I became interested in languages and French, the less I was actually drawn to Paris, it being such an international metropolis where they are famed for sniffing out foreigners and refusing to speak French to them. Since I moved to France this feeling only seems to have increased. French people outside of Paris don’t seem to be nearly as enamoured by the city as the rest of the world and this rubbed off on me a little.
However, this weekend was Nina’s first time in Paris and we packed in as many of the must see sights as we could. There are certain things that you just have to do the first time you experience the City of Lights. Between doing more than 26km over two days, getting possibly the first glimpse of summer and translating my way through Paris with ease, I think I found a little bit of the magic again.
I made my way from Mulhouse to Paris without any major problems, other than dragging myself out of bed at 6.30am. It’s three hours from Mulhouse to Paris and I got in a little before Nina so I made my way from Gare de Lyon to Gare du Nord to meet her off the Eurostar. The last time we saw each other was when I made a trip to London with my sisters over my birthday in 2020, just weeks after leaving China because of covid and just weeks before things went into lockdown in the UK as well.
Our first stop was Sacre Cœur in Montmartre, after dropping our bags at our hotel. We were staying in Hôtel Victoria in the 9th arrondissement, le Quartier de l’Opéra, which was only a half an hour walk from Montmartre. It was a nice hotel, not a massive room but clean and not too expensive. There was also luggage storage where we could leave our bags seeing as we arrived before check-in and that we were able to use after checking out the next day so we didn’t have to drag our bags around Paris for the whole day.
Walking through streets towards Sacre Cœur, gradually working our way uphill we got just a glimpse through the buildings of the church high on its perch. Nina was seeing it all with fresh eyes and couldn’t believe the view! We were pretty hungry so we actually didn’t go to the church or the viewpoint at first but straight to the main square to get some food. We sat down at one of the restaurants in the square and decided to split a few dishes. We went for the classic moules-frites (mussels in a white wine sauce with a side of chips) and grenouilles (frog’s legs)! It was between frog’s legs and escargot (snails!), Nina had never had either but I hadn’t had frog’s legs so we went for that. The frog’s legs were actually kind of bland, they genuinely just tasted like chicken and unseasoned chicken at that, and I didn’t really like the mussels plus their service was very slow so not a great culinary start to the weekend. When we had finished eating we took a tour around the artists so that Nina could pick out a small painting as a souvenir and then headed back to see Sacre Cœur.
From Sacre Cœur we wandered down through Montmartre towards Moulin Rouge, ice cream in hand. We found our way down there just to have a quick look and then hopped on the tram to the Arc de Triomphe. I’ve not seen it before and it’s actually pretty impressive. We had a quick photoshoot with the help of some fellow tourists before turning towards the Eiffel Tower. We decided to walk because in this case it was quicker than getting the metro. Walking is also such a great way to see a city and get a feel for it as well. We sat on a grassy bank below the Trocadéro for a while, just taking it all in and giving our poor feet a little break. We walked towards the Eiffel Tower and then along the Seine for a bit before getting the metro back towards the hotel.
Originally the plan had been to go back to the hotel for a bit of chill time, go out for dinner at one of the restaurants around our hotel and then go back out to see the Eiffel Tower all lit up by night. However, we HIGHLY underestimated just how wiped out we were by all the walking we had done. As soon as we hit the room there was no way we were going out again other than very briefly to find dinner. We wandered around a bit until we settled on a dumpling place just across the road. It was called 东北饺子王 (Dongbei Dumpling King), Dongbei being the northeastern region of China where I lived. We got a set of steamed pork, onion and shrimp dumplings and grilled chicken and cabbage dumplings with a side of mapo tofu and aubergine fritters. We both made a right meal of it by dropping our dumplings into the dipping sauce and splashing it everywhere but they were delicious and reminded me of Dalian!
Back at the hotel it wasn’t long before we were out for the count!
Our plan for day 2 centred around our booking at the Musée d’Orsay at 10.30am followed by wandering down and around the Seine. We walked down towards the river, enjoying the sunshine that we were lucky enough to have for both days there. Sunshine makes everything better and Paris is no different. We passed by the Opéra on the way which was very impressive and then down a very fancy street full of shops that I will never be able to afford to Place Vendôme. Just beyond are the Jardin des Tuileries which we walked through and where we eventually found a kiosk to get some breakfast. The city seemed really empty as we were walking over which I figured was just because it’s a Sunday, and even Paris has a sleepy Sunday morning. We got a coffee each and a croissant for me and a Nutella crepe for Nina and had them next to a fountain in the park. It was another beautiful day and a really idyllic moment where I just appreciated the life that I get to lead. There were people reading, out enjoying the sun, drinking coffee and eating breakfast like us. We sat there for a little bit and then headed just over the river to the Musée d’Orsay.
The Musée d’Orsay is in an old train station and even the building itself is absolutely beautiful. I got in for free because I’m an EU citizen under 25 (thank you Irish passport!) and we had paid for audio guides as well, seeing as they were only €6. The reason we chose the Musée d’Orsay was because it has a large collection of Van Gogh paintings and Nina loves Van Gogh. The central avenue of the museum is filled with sculptures and then there are rooms off to the side with paintings. I liked the sculptures more than the paintings in this section but it was interesting to see some paintings by names known even to an art amateur like myself. There was an interesting scale model of the area around the Opéra that we had walked through that morning and a cross section of the entire building. It took us about an hour and a half to get through the main avenue and I was getting a little bit of museum fatigue. I was reaching my limit but Nina was having a great time. I suggested we move up to the area that has the impressionists and post-impressionists and I liked the paintings in this area a lot more with its Monets, Renoirs, Pisarros and Manets.
There was so much more we could have seen but at this point lunch was calling! We left the museum and walked along the river a little until we found a riverside brasserie. It was almost definitely a tourist trap but a well placed one with decent food as well! We decided to split two dishes, a buffalo mozzarella and parma ham pizza and a crêpe complète (ham, cheese and fried egg) with some chips.
After lunch we wound our way back and forth across the Seine, starting with the Louvre. Having filled our museum quota for the day we just went to have a look at the pyramid, the building and the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel at the edge of the Tuileries. We walked further down the river to Île de la Cité and Sainte-Chapelle. This wasn’t on our original plan but my mum had suggested, or rather demanded, that we go for her. It was somewhere that I hadn’t been before and it’s only a couple of hundred metres away from Notre Dame so we figured we might as well squeeze it in. We were a bit disappointed with the room we first entered and thought that was all there was until we spotted the staircase that leads up to the main chapel. We had seen a picture when looking it up the night before but were still taken aback when we entered the main room. It was absolutely stunning. The walls are almost entirely made from intricate, multi-coloured stained glass and with all the sun today it was glorious, such a hidden treasure. It’s a very popular tourist spot but still doesn’t have the popularity of it’s neighbour Notre Dame, maybe given that it is literally hidden in the courtyard of the Palais de Justice.
From there we headed back across the river to visit Shakespeare and Company, a bookshop. Nina and I are both big readers, it being one of the things we bonded over when we first met. Nina and I both managed to limit ourselves to three books each which we were very proud of. We really were zig zagging back and forth as we went back on to Île de la Cité to look at Notre Dame straight on (obviously you can’t go right up to it or inside while it is getting repaired after the fire a few years ago). We walked over a bridge to Île Saint-Louis to finish our day with some ice cream from Berthillon, a very famous brand. I tried a couple of new flavours, la 60 which was a mix of vanilla, passion fruit and some kind of seed I think, and also a lemon and basil sorbet. La 60 was delicious but the pineapple basil absolutely blew my mind. It was so refreshing, which was exactly what I wanted. I still think about it every few days even now.
With that, we were almost out of time. We headed back to our hotel to pick up our bags and then went our separate ways. It was a packed and fantastic weekend. It was one of those experiences that are thankfully becoming more regular where it feels like we are getting back to normal. Being able to run away to Paris for the weekend is still a big privilege though and I recognise that. I’m very thankful for the opportunity to spend time with a dear friend, especially one I haven’t seen since before the pandemic, and to get back to travelling a little, something I love.