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It’s true that it’s very convenient to see the major sights of Paris via tour bus. However, in order to know Paris more intimately, you simply must explore it on foot. It’s the only way for you to truly experience this enchanting, historic city, with buildings that date back to the 19th century, massive monuments that bear witness to the grandeur of its past, charming little shops that are tucked away in the most surprising of places, cozy cafés that proudly highlight their ‘terrasse chauffée‘ (heated terrace) whose tiny chairs are crowded behind equally tiny round tables so that people can sit side by side each together in order to face the street and get a good view of passers-by!

But before you set off, bear in mind that three things are absolutely essential for this endeavour — time, stamina, and a good map of Paris.

Time

Paris is huge, that’s why you’ll need a lot of time to explore its every nook and cranny. If you only have a couple of days in Paris, try to allocate at least a couple of hours for walking along within its tiny cobbled streets. Perhaps, you can walk the short distance between 2 major points of interest, such as the Jardin des Tuileries and the Louvre.

When Lola and I were in Paris, we walked from our hotel near Châtelet-Les Halles all the way to the Paris Convention and Visitors Bureau in Pyramides, near Place d l’Opera. The walk — which included a quick stop at a café, some window-shopping, some aimless wandering around, taking tonnes of pics, and buying a few souvenir items — easily took up an entire afternoon. Considering that the area was right in the heart of the city, I was most surprised to note — even though Lola was the one who pointed it out to me — that most of Paris’ streets are small. We found ourselves wandering farther and farther into the Jardin des Tuileries, then the Louvre. If not for the bitter cold, we probably could have done a bit more of exploring that day…

Cobblestoned Paris street
A building from 1896
One of Paris’ statues

Stamina

Covering huge distances in Paris’ cobblestoned streets requires a lot of stamina, so come prepared with comfortable walking shoes, a small bottle of water in your bag, and a foldable umbrella, just in case it rains. If you find a charming little coffee shop tucked away in a corner, by all means, stop and refuel. A cup of coffee only costs €1. At least, it did in April 2008, before petroleum prices went up for the nth time, sparking massive protests all over the globe, an issue which I shall not delve into further in this blog.

So where were we? Ahh, stamina. Yes, you’d need this, as well, for going up the Arc de Triomphe or the tower of Notre Dame. Details in two separate posts, as each of these landmarks are worthy of individual posts!

Map

A good map is an absolute must-have when exploring Paris on foot. And it goes without saying, one must have the ability to read the map that you have in hand, as a map without map-reading skills would render it utterly useless.

It’s nice to literally get yourself lost in the City of Lights but when the wind starts blowing stronger and darkness begins to fall, you need a map to figure out exactly where you are so that you can find your way back to your hotel. Unless, as they say in French, si tu as des sous (slang for: if you have a lot of money), just can always take a taxi. But that would take out all the fun out of exploring, don’t you think?

I got free maps from the Alliance Française in KL , like, two months before our trip, and a second map later on from the Paris Convention and Visitors Bureau. Neither map, however, listed down the smaller streets and alleys, so there’s the tendency to get a bit confused when you suddenly find yourself in a small alley that’s not included in your map.

Fortunately, thanks to David Lebovitz’ blog, I got to know about Paris Pratique Par Arrondisement (Practical Paris by Arrondisement). As you may or may not know, Paris is divided into 20 arrondisements or districts. By mere mention of the arrondisement of a certain shop or house, Parisians immediately get a quite precise idea of its location. Paris Pratique Par Arrondisement is a small booklet with detailed maps of Paris, broken down by arrondisement. The maps include the smallest of alleys. There’s also an index of all of Paris’ streets, which have reference numbers that help you find them easily in the maps. The booklet also has Metro, RER, tram and bus routes. David Lebovitz said the version that he has even includes outdoor markets in the city by day and location, addresses for all the cemeteries in Paris and the location of gas stations and taxi stands!

Paris Pratique Par Arrondisement was the first thing I bought the moment we got into Paris. It cost €6 from a local newsstand and it was arguably the best €6 that I spent in Paris because it was comprehensive, precise and I should be able to use it again for my next trip to Paris (hope springs eternal, as my old friend, Joey used to say!). I find it makes a nice souvenir, as well, because there’s nothing quite like poring over a map long after the journey’s been done, retracing your steps and marveling at the distances you’ve covered on foot!

The small booklet is entirely in French but you should still be able to figure things out. David Lebovitz says even locals use it to find their way around Paris, so it was perfect for me, because I wanted to blend in as much as possible and not look like a tourist. Unfortunately, I forgot that I had my camera hanging by its strap around my neck most of the time, which was a dead giveaway. Eventually, it dawned on me that the city is inundated by thousands of tourists at every turn. At one time, we found ourselves walking up to a couple who look like locals to ask for directions, then we suddenly realised that they, themselves, were also clutching maps of the city! So in the end, it didn’t matter that I was a tourist. I was doing all the tourist-y things anyway — taking pics of anything and everything, riding a tour bus, going on a cruise in the river Seine. But it felt good to pretend to be a local by brandishing out my Paris Pratique Par Arrondisement whenever I needed to find out which street corner we were at any given time. So it goes without saying that one of the high points of our trip was when we were approached by some tourists inside a Metro station because they needed directions and they thought that we were locals!

By the way, the Paris Convention and Visitors Bureau also gives away free copies of a small guidebook that proposes ‘themed’ walks within Paris. There’s People’s Paris, Timeless Paris, Party-time Paris, Hip Paris, Glamorous Paris, Village Paris, Artists’ Paris, Monumental Paris, Paris Chic,Mythical Paris and Undiscovered Paris, each route highlighting a different ‘face’ of Paris.

Positive things about the guidebook? It shows a mini map of the area to be covered on foot, with a short description and a brief history about the various places of interest along the way. It also lists down the opening days and hours, as well as the day(s) when that particular place is free to the public, if applicable. Anything that involves free stuff is always very useful info!

On the downside, I find it sadly lacking as a guidebook because it doesn’t give the specific route from point A to point Z. You basically have to find your way on your own. And given that the maps included in the booklet are not detailed enough, you’ll probably find it handy to have Paris Pratique Par Arrondissement to complement the guidebook.

With so many things to see and experience in Paris, I seriously doubt if one whole month is enough to explore the length and breadth of this beautiful city.

If you are pressed for time and long to see Paris within less than half a day (or two full days or somewhere in between) or are simply not keen on scuffing your shoes on Paris’ cobblestones and developing nasty foot blisters in the process, Les Cars Rouges is a very good option to take.

For €24 per adult and €12 per child, you get to ride around in a red double-decker bus and get on and off at any of its 9 designated stops, which are conveniently located at Paris’ major points of interest: Eiffel Tower, Champs de Mars, Musée de Louvre, Notre Dame, Musée d’Orsay, Opéra, Champs Elysées-Etoile (right in front of the Arc de Triomphe), Grand Palais, and Trocadero.

As soon as you get on the bus, you will be given a small leaflet with the route map and the timetable, plus a pair of red (!) earphones, which you have to plug into the side of the armrests or the wall of the bus. You will then be able to listen to an interesting commentary which includes interesting tidbits of history about buildings and places that you pass by. The commentary is in 8 languages — English, French, Russian, Japanese, Spanish, Italian, German and Mandarin.

Click here to see the route map (Warning: 4MB file!). I scanned the actual leaflet that I had when I was in Paris, so it’s a bit tattered. Sorry about that 😉

There are 3 things that I like about Les Car Rouges:

1. You can get on and off the bus anytime you please at any of the 9 designated stops. A schedule is posted at each stop, indicating what time the next bus will come. Click here to see the complete timetable of the buses at each designated stop. The buses were right on schedule, almost Swiss-like in their precision, disproving my initial concerns about Paris traffic.

The address and location of the designated stops are indicated in the Cars Rouges leaflet. Look out for this sign, as well:

It takes about 2 hours to finish the entire tour. You may get off at every stop, if you wish, and just get on another bus once you’re done, or you can do like what Lola and I did: stay in the bus for the entire duration of the tour to see everything first before deciding where to get off and start a more in-depth exploration of the key places of interest. Perhaps you may want to have your photo taken in Trocadero, a small square located between 2 museums just across the river from the Eiffel Tower. Or you can choose to get off at Champs de Mars, a green field that makes a nice background for photos of you smiling, with the Eiffel Tower towering behind you. Or perhaps you want to pay a visit first to La Joconde a.k.a. the Mona Lisa at the Louvre.

2. Your ticket is valid for 2 days, hence, you can continue your tour the next day. The first bus leaves at 8 am at Trocadero and the last bus leaves at 8 pm. Just make sure you keep your receipt because the bus driver will want to see them when you board the bus.

3. They give part of the proceeds to Medecins sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders). That means, you get to enjoy Paris and contribute to a good cause at the same time.

Of course, there are other options to see Paris, such as the Batobus, which employs the same hop-on-hop-off concept, except that you get to ride a boat on the River Seine. This is also a nice, leisurely option and I would have taken it due to my initial concerns about possible traffic jams that would disrupt my tour schedule. But after having seen how smooth the traffic was for the bus, I strongly recommend the bus because you get to see more of Paris from the bus, especially from the upper deck.

We enjoyed wonderful views of Paris from the upper deck, even if it meant enduring 2 hours of the freezing early spring Paris weather (about 7 C!). Bien sur, you can also opt to stay warm and comfy in the lower deck and enjoy the view through the extra large windows. But don’t chat with the driver, s’il vous plait, because they are forbidden from doing so.

You can buy the tickets from Les Cars Rouges’ website, through ParisInfo.com, from the bus driver (no prior reservations needed), or through l’Office du Tourisme et des Congres de Paris‘ Main Welcome Office at 25, Rue des Pyramides, very close to the Opera House.

You can also opt for the Open Tour Bus, which offers 4 circuits and 50 stops, also using the hop-on-hop-off concept. Passes are available for 1 or 2 days and can be used on all 4 circuits. Prices as of June 2008 are:

Adult 1 Day (12 and over): 25 €
Child 1 Day (from 4 to 11 inclusive): 12 €

Adult 2 Days (12 and over): 28 €
Child 2 Days (from 4 to 11 inclusive): 12 €

Lola and I took the TGV (Train de Grand Vitesse – train of great speed) from Geneva to Paris for our recent European adventure. I bought the tickets in advance from RailEurope‘s agent in Malaysia, Boustead Travel, because I couldn’t buy the tickets online using my Philippine passport (or, I assume, any non-European passport for that matter). But if you are already in Switzerland, you can purchase your TGV tickets from the nearest Swiss Rail office.

We boarded the TGV at Geneva’s main train station, Cornavin. The trip was as pleasant and as smooth as any European train can get that it didn’t matter that we bought second-class tickets.

But the trip wasn’t without any surprises though.

The first surprise? No immigration or customs checks whatsoever. It felt weird walking past empty Douane counters.

The second surprise was the delay. Knowing how the Swiss are such sticklers when it comes to punctuality, I was really stunned that our train was actually late by a good 10 minutes. Then it dawned on me that the TGV is operated by the French SNCF. It’s a French train, not a Swiss train. <Hits hand on forehead> Duh!

The third not-so-pleasant surprise was the scenery. Or, to be more accurate, lack thereof. The French countryside was so blah and dull and nothing at all like the Swiss countryside. I had in mind the lush green meadows and snow-capped mountains and shimmering blue lakes that you’re bound to see when you take the train between Zurich and Geneva. And I was sorely disappointed to not have even seen a glimpse of the Alps. Oh well…at the rate the train was moving, getting decent pics was a serious challenge any way. See the blurry tree on the lower right hand side? That was because of the train’s speed; not camera shake for once.

See how dark and gloomy this photo is? That’s how exactly the French countryside looked that day, as though it was on the verge of raining all the time. The only reason why I kept this photo is because it looks like something out of an Impressionist’s painting.

Watch what happens when I work some Photoshop Elements magic into it. Lemme see… Enhance > Adjust Lighting > Fill Flash. Tweak it a bit further by increasing the saturation a bit. And then… Filter > Artistic > Paint Daubs. And voila! ‘Ere eez a painting of zee banks of zee river Seine by zee famous Dutch impressionist XYZ who lived in Paris in zee 18th century… 😉 Just try to ignore the reflections on the glass window, which I didn’t have the time to edit out of the photo.

Okay, so the view was disappointing. At least the trains were clean and well-maintained, I tried to console myself. The loo was very clean too although it could have used a nice dose of eau de toilette. [Side note: I’ve always wondered why they call it ‘toilet water’.]

Surprise number four? No one inspected our tickets. I felt rather silly spending my precious Euros for a one-way ticket when I could have easily boarded the train and gotten off without one. Of course, had there been a spot check and had I been found wanting of a ticket, it would have meant a heavy fine… Or jail… Or maybe both. <Shudder!> Okay, so I’m being a bit speculative here.

Finally, the last surprise wasn’t that much of a surprise. No immigration at the French side either. So my passport doesn’t bear any French stamp and I have no official proof that I have been to Paris. I do have 538 or so 834 photos of various places in Paris as proof that I have, indeed, been to the City of Lights. But they’re photos and can never take the place of an official stamp on my passport 🙁

My verdict on the TGV? It’s fast — in less than 3 hours, you’ll find yourself already in Paris’ Gare de Lyon station — and it’s much, much cheaper than taking the plane. So I say go right ahead and take the TGV as long as you don’t have too much luggage to lug along with you.

The countdown has begun. By this time next week, Lola and I will be in Europe. God-willing!

I’m doing last-minute preparations, such as buying our Keukenhof tickets online. Keukenhof (photo from the official website) is the largest bulb flower park in the world, featuring tulips, hyacinths, tulips, daffodils, tulips and other spring bulbs (with tulips intentionally mentioned repeatedly!). It drew over 42 million visitors in the last 58 years, covers an area of 32 hectares and, with• 4.5 million tulips in 100 varieties, 7 million flower bulbs planted by hand and more than 2500 trees in 87 varieties, it is no wonder that it dares to proclaim itself to be “the most photographed place in the world.” Their motto this year, incidentally, is Bring Your Camera. And I definitely will bring mine. Which makes me wonder if two 2-gig memory cards are enough for our whirlwind 6-six day, 3-city European tour…

I’m also planning to buy us Paris Visite passes, that will allow us unlimited travel on the bus, metro, tramway and RER networks in Paris and its suburbs, and Paris Museum passes, that will allow us to visit as many times as we like and without having to queue, more than 60 museums and monuments in Paris and the surrounding area, such as Arc de Triomphe, Louvre, Centre Pompidou, Sainte Chapelle, Musee d’Orsay. The Louvre is on top of our must-see list, naturellement, as we definitely must see with our very own eyes the original Mona Lisa.

I’ve been doing some last-minute research, as well, on the more practical aspects of our trip, such as finding out about public toilets in Paris. It may sound funny now, but one day, when you’re in Paris and in dire need of the wc (pronounced as double-veh seh), you will thank me for finding and sharing with you this very useful piece of information 😉

Gotta cut this post short now because I just remembered that I still have to book Lola her tour to Chamonix and Mont-Blanc!