【Travel】Paris, France

PARIS: 20 Nov – 24 Nov 2014

This was our first journey Westwards and also our first long haul flight together since we met 14 years ago.

Since it was going to be a 12-13 hour journey, we figured that a tri-city trip would make the discomfort and cost of a long flight more worthwhile. Being budget travelers, we selected the cities based on not just our interest to visit, but also their proximity and the availability of budget transport between the two countries.

I  also found out that Air France and KLM works in partnership with each other, making it possible to opt for multi-destination flights without added costs. What that meant was that, we had the flexibility of flying into country A, but fly out of country B instead. For example, if you had bought return air tickets to Paris from Singapore, you would have to make your way back to Paris from Amsterdam to catch the flight home. Multi-destination flights thus save you money and lots of precious time.

Our Itinerary:

Singapore > Paris Air France, direct flight
Paris > London Eurostar, railway
London > Amsterdam EasyJet, budget air
Amsterdam > Singapore KLM, direct flight

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We landed at Charles de gaulle airport and caught the RER train to Gare Du Nord Station where our BNB was located. We had initially tried to buy tickets from the ticket machines using our credit card, only to realise that our card was not compatible, so we had to queue at the nearby ticketing counter instead.

Speaking some English and broken French, we purchased our RER tickets and a carnet of 10 single-trip metro tickets as well. If you intend to use the metro quite a bit, it is more cost-saving to buy a carnet instead of separate single-trip tickets. You will also appreciate the merits of having spare tickets in your pocket when you end up at station entrances that do not have any ticket machines or manned counters.

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This was a trip of many firsts! Also the first time we booked with AirBNB and experienced staying in someone’s home (3 different homes in 3 cities). It was not particularly smooth going with the slightly hostile neighbours, but we loved the old, tiny and quaint Parisian apartment that we stayed in, especially the creaky spiral wooden staircase that proved to be a good workout for us lazy Singaporeans.

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BASTILLE OPEN-AIR FOOD MARKET

We were starving after the long flight, so our first stop was to Bastille Open-Air Food Market! There was fresh produce, cheeses, olives and cooked food stalls. Feeling tired, hungry and not super adventurous, we headed straight for the crêpe stall.

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So for our first meal in Paris, we had a Salted Caramel Crêpe and Sausage & Cheese Galette. Nothing like hot and fresh crêpe on a cold winter’s day. Just looking at the hot smoke coming from the crêpe was what we needed to take away our weariness 🙂

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We walked on and continued to explore the Bastille area where there were many little shops, eateries and cafes. Still on the lookout for more food and wanting a taste of different flavours, we decided against our hungry stomachs’ wills to step into a sit-down restaurant.

Then we spotted a queue outside this tiny shopfront which had homemade bagels stacked up against its window. Walking into Bagelstein was a challenge, with the queue along one side, and a long counter on the other where we later sat to finish our bagel. Despite the tight space, everyone seemed unfazed but more focused on the colourful menu boards and selection of bagel fillings before them.

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Unable to read French, we were somehow about to point out that we wanted a salmon bagel sandwich and orange juice. Fresh homemade bagels are so rare in Singapore. How I wish I could walk into Bagelstein again and walk out with bags of bagels to bring home right now.

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Besides fresh, delicious bagels, the decor of the tiny narrow shop was amazing, with posters and news plastered in frames along the wall.

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LOURVE MUSEUM

The Musée du Louvre is the world’s largest museum and an extremely popular one among tourists. So if you are planning a visit, our best advice is to be there when it opens. We made it to the museum just after 9am, breezed through the security check and got our tickets rather quickly at one of the few ticket counters in the centre of the museum. Do note that selfie sticks and tripods are not allowed in the museum.

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The museum has three wings, each with a vast complex of exhibition spaces and rooms. We spent close to 6 hours there, taking a lunch break in between at the museum cafeteria, and still did not manage to make it through everything we wanted to see.

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Really cool idea for the museum audio guide using the Nintendo 3DS, which we really should have gotten since many of the descriptions were written in French.

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Expecting that most visitors would have come to see the infamous Mona Lisa, we decided that we should make the painting our first stop. Located in the Denon Wing on the first floor, you can easily locate Mona Lisa by the crowd of people. In comparison, Mona Lisa looks so small admist the large crowd gathered to see her.

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There are of course, many other treasures in the museum like this  beautiful statue that greeted us in the hallway of the Denon Wing, the Winged Victory Statue of Samothrace standing on a pedestal of marble representing the prow of a ship.

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There were galleries after galleries of art. Some rather peculiar pieces as well.

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We particularly loved the large format French paintings and also the grandeur of Napolean III’s apartments.

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Being fans of Egyptology, we definitely couldn’t miss out on our favourite section on Egyptian antiquities as well. It was especially significant for Ed as this was his first encounter with real Egyptian artifacts.

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This particular hieroglyphic looks like a winking face, doesn’t it 😉

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Unfortunately, this was mostly what was happening in the museum. It was often packed with tourists trying to take photos of the paintings, and even selfies. We were even ticked off by someone for taking too long to look at a painting because we were obstructing them from taking a proper selfie. Well, what can I say? The painting behind is the crowning of Josephine, queen of Napolean I.

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NOTRE DAM DE PARIS (NOTRE DAM CATHEDRAL)

The Notre Dam, is a beautiful gothic church situated along the River Seine. Entrance to the church is free, and we were surprised to find an exhibition detailing the construction of the cathedral from 1163 to subsequent additions and restorations over the next 200 years.

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The interior of the cathedral is spectacular, and despite the large number of tourists inside, the atmosphere was peaceful. We also observed many people on their knees, deep in prayer.  You could make your own offerings (with a voluntary donation to the church) or bring home one of the candles as a souvenir.

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Rows of lighted candles in the Notre Dame Cathedral.

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By the time we got out, the sky was getting dark and the cathedral’s exterior lights came on, accentuating the imposing structure, spires and statues. To stand there and take in the contrast of colours created by the differentiation in light, was just breathtaking.

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SHAKESPEARE AND COMPANY

We were most excited about being able to visit the Shakespeare and Company bookstore, located just a short distance away from Notre Dam as we had heard so much about it. Opened in 1919 and the old location once the gathering place of writers like Ernest Hemmingway and F.Scott Fitzgerald, the independent bookstore specialises in English language books.

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There were second hand books on sale outside the bookstore. This area has now been turned into a cafe since the autumn of 2015.

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The interior of the bookstore is small but breeming with books, from floor to ceiling. You could go up to the second floor where they frequently held book reading sessions.

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TAKE A NIGHT WALK ALONG THE RIVER SEINE

Besides being exceptionally beautiful at night, it is also a great way to work off the dinner you just had. And it really does not matter where your destination is, just walk on, go ahead and get lost along the river. With a scene like this, you can always worry about looking for a nearby metro station later on.

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There were artists along the streets peddling their works.

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By chance, we ended up at Pon des Arts Bridge where there were possibly hundreds of love locks. Just a few months before we were there, a part of the bridge had collapsed due to the weight of the locks, but was fixed. Sadly, another couple of months later, the Paris City Council decided to remove all the love locks for safety reasons.

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MONTMARTE

Montmarte is another must go area in Paris. Now the hipster district of Paris, Montmarte was once home to the bohemian bourgeois and artists, including Dali, Van Gogh, Picasso and Monet. We signed up for a free walking tour, hoping that it would give us a better insight to the area.

The gathering point was outside the Blanche Metro station. The weather that day was perfect, so many tourists showed up for the tour, but the tour company was well prepared with 2 guides on hand. The group was split into two and we started first with the best known landmark in Montmarte, the Moulin Rouge.

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Translated as the red windmill, the Moulin Rouge is a cabaret that still hosts night shows featuring can-can dances if you are keen to watch. It is also interesting to note, according to our guide, that Montmarte’s landscape used to be littered with windmills and has been a subject painted by Van Gogh himself.

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Another one of the surviving windmills in Montmarte is the Moulin de la Galette which now houses a restaurant that we heard is pretty good.

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Signs of Montmarte’s artistic and creative culture was evident everywhere. From graffiti and wall murals, to buskers.

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The houses in Montmarte were so full of character.

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Along the streets of Montmarte, there were also many restaurants and boulangeries. Le Grenier à Pain had won 1st prize for its baguette in 2010. Too full to eat a whole baguette, we bought croissant and danish instead. Our verdict? It was pretty good but we personally felt that the croissant at Le Moulin à Pains near Gare de l’Est Station tasted best 🙂

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Trekking up Montmarte takes quite a bit of effort but it was all worthwhile when we got to the top of the hill where the magnificent Basilique du Sacré-Coeur sat against a lovely blue sky.

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The best of all, there was the most incredible view of Paris. We were definitely thankful for the fine weather that day.

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LE MARCHE AUX PUCES DE SAINT-OUEN FLEA MARKET

The market is a little far off and takes quite a bit of walking to get to from Porte de St-Ouen Station. Be sure to arm yourself with Google Maps when you leave the station. However, the market seems to be less of a flea but more of an antiques market.

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Lots to see and plenty to buy, from old cameras, to old toys, coffee grinders, badges and posters, but the prices were not too friendly for our pockets.

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Besides antiques, there were also vintage inspired decor and collectibles. We would certainly have loved to take one or a few of these lights home with us

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Antique furnitures were also in abundance. These were certainly too huge to even consider buying.

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LE PETIT VOISIN

This little restaurant deserves a special mention for its excellent service and food. En route to the Effiel Tower, we decided we would go in search of a recommended restaurant nearby. By fate perhaps, that restaurant had already closed down, and that was how we eventually ended up at Le Petit Voisin, located along Rue Saint Charles

It wasn’t very packed that evening but there were already families dining inside so we decided to try it out. The waitress didn’t speak much English so when we asked if they had an English menu, she guided us over to a blackboard on the floor, squatted down and painstakingly explained each item on the menu with the little English that she knew. We were so impressed, we decided to stay for a meal. We were equally impressed by the quality and flavour of their dishes.

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For our first real sit-down meal in Paris, we decided to treat ourselves well with two appetizers, two mains and a bottle of wine. We especially loved the prawn avocado salad and beef tartarte.

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PALACE OF VERSAILLES

It takes about an hour to get to Versailles, so do start your day early. Remember to buy two way tickets before your set off to Versailles Château Rive Gauche Station. The palace grounds and gardens are huge, so we spent almost the entire day there (which on hindsight, we should have brought along some snacks for lunch).

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Versailles was pomp, extravagant and simply beautiful. Despite having to walk a lot that day (you could opt to rent bicycles or a buggy to explore the gardens if you wanted), we were completely wowed by the flamboyant display of wealth in every room we stepped into.

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The royal apartments, halls and chapel were ornately decorated with gold, art and upholstery.

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Perhaps the most ostentatious of all, was the Hall of Mirrors, with mirrors lining one side of the hall and windows to a great view of the garden on the other. Definitely an ideal room for impressing guests. One of the mirrors was in fact a hidden door that led into the King’s apartment.

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The room that I thought was the most beautiful, was the Queen’s bed chamber. The door on the left was where Marie Antoinette escaped to hide away from the angry mob who had stormed the palace during the revolution.

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The gardens are humongous, but pretty barren and sad looking in winter. We shuttle was always mostly full, we couldn’t drive the buggy, and Ed could not cycle, so our only option was to walk. With our feet, we only made it as far as the Petit Trianon, as we had to conserve enough energy to make it all the way back again to the main palace grounds.

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The Petit Trianon was initially built by Louis XV for his mistress, Madame de Pompadour and last used by Marie Antoinette when she needed a place to escape from the formality of the royal court. This château is rather ‘cottage-like’, much simpler and more intimate than the main palace.

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But it wasn’t without luxury.

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And conveniences like a commode.

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Our energy was spent from all the walking, and then having to walk all the way back to where we had started from, but we were suddenly rejuvenated when we spotted sheep in the gardens! It was a tiring day, but a day trip out to Versailles is definitely worth your time.

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THE ICONS OF PARIS

A trip to Paris would not be complete without visiting its most notable landmarks. At the top of the list would definitely be the Eiffel Tower.

Since it does not seem legal to post photos of the tower lighted up at night, here is a close up view of the Tower’s incredible steel curves. It was simply unreal just standing below the tower, looking upwards. The tower has a special light display every hour, so we felt it was good enough admiring from below without having to pay a ticket to ride the elevator up. The only downside was that there were many street vendors selling souvenirs, boomerang light toys, and even champagne! Enterprising I would say, and very apt for the romantic vibe exuded by the brightly lit tower in the dark of the night.

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The Arc de Triomphe, the world’s largest triumphal arch, is located at the end of Champs-Élysées and also close to where most ladies would be happy to find their favourite brand shops. The Champs-Élysées is a terribly busy road with heavy traffic and the Arc is encircled by a roundabout, which unfortunately we were not smart enough to figure out how to get across to (there certainly must have been a crossing on the other end, but our tired feet were less than willing to explore).

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The other end of the Champs-Élysées where you can see the magnificent Arc from a distance. I always had a romantic image of how the Champs-Élysées would look like, and somehow… it wasn’t quite like this mass of people and traffic that we were looking at. Perhaps this only happens during the Christmas season, as there was an ongoing fair in the area with a maze of food and gift stalls.

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One of the biggest highlights of the trip for me was to see the Luxor Obelisk at Place de la Concorde. The Obelisk had once stood with its twin, at the entrance of Luxor Temple in Egypt. I was lucky to have seen that Obelisk in Luxor, so to see finally see the 2nd obelisk, was really significant for me. The Place de la Concorde was also where many had been sentenced to death by the guillotine during the French Revolution.

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IT’S HARD NOT TO LOVE PARIS

Paris is a city that has so much personality and character, even its doors speak out to you.

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Art and social commentary is literally everywhere you walk. You just need to keep your eyes open.10834926_10152405260802680_786536049224280213_o

Boulangeries, pâtisseries… go ahead and step into every single one you pass by. There is nothing quite comparable to French pastries. The diet can always wait 🙂

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Bask in the music of the buskers. You will find them along streets, in the train tunnels and even in the train cabins. These guys we encountered even had a ‘yang-qin’, a Chinese hammered dulcimer, as a part of their French repertoire!

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MONEY SAVING TIP

Don’t be afraid to splurge on a few good meals once in a while as French dining does make you feel pampered and wanting for more, but to make sure that you don’t blow your budget, supermarkets are always a good alternative for affordable and healthy meals. We got this meal from carrefour, including a SGD4 bottle of Peach wine and really amazing quinoa salad.

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