City of Light
Izzy Bunting visits Paris by train to explore winding historic streets, world-famous art galleries, and tranquil parks and gardens
Sustainable travel has never been easier. Here in the UK, with Europe's extensive rail system on our doorstep, it's easier than ever to avoid the hassle of airports and the resulting carbon emissions. To simplify your explorations even further, Interrail offers an all-in-one pass to over thirty countries across the continent.
If you're spoilt for choice, why not start with the country that's closest to home? France is one of the easiest European countries to visit by train, as it's only two hours on the Eurostar from St Pancras to Gare du Nord in Paris.
Hemingway said 'there is never any ending to Paris', and anyone's who has visited the iconic capital will agree. Although visiting Paris by train makes for a great weekend trip, you'll have no problem spending a week (or more) in the City of Light, exploring the winding boulevards, picturesque riverside walks and renowned landmarks.
When I visited in late 2019, I was lucky enough to have a free entrance to many national museums, art galleries, and monuments – a pre-Brexit benefit for EU citizens under 26. A good alternative – post Brexit and for those over 26 – is the Paris Pass.
A great place to start your explorations is La Rive Gauche – the southern bank of the Seine. This has historically been considered the artistic part of the capital, as it was home to popular artists, such as Picasso and Matisse. You'll also find the labyrinthine bookshop Shakespeare and Company, as well as cafes and leafy squares tucked away along the narrow pedestrianised streets.
La Rive Gauche also has many galleries and museums, including Musée d'Orsay. Housed in a former train station, this art gallery is filled with a huge variety of French art (mostly from the latter half of the 19th century). This includes sculptures, photography exhibitions and paintings – amongst which I stumbled upon Vincent van Gogh's alleged final self-portrait, one of the thirty he produced during his lifetime; Renoir's Bal du Moulin de la Galette; and a number of works by Monet.
It's definitely worth climbing to the top floor for a new perspective of the gallery's dramatic curved glass ceiling, a remnant of its days as a station, and to take a peek through the huge clock tower for views of the cityscape.
Another must-see art gallery is Musée de l'Orangerie, a short walk from Musée d'Orsay through the pleasant Jardin des Tuileries. In the 1800s, this building was used to shelter the garden's citrus trees during the winter, but it now accommodates a collection of impressionist and post-impressionist paintings.
My favourite exhibit at Musée de l'Orangerie was undoubtedly Monet's Water Lilies. A series of eight paintings is arranged on the curved walls of two oval rooms. Each panel is two metres high, and, together, they span a whopping length of 91 metres. This layout was designed by Monet himself – it aims to make the paintings come alive as you walk through the rooms. Natural light from the skylights – another feature that Monet insisted on – allows the colours to change with the weather outside. They're lit up brightly when the sunlight floods in from above, or muted when overcast.
Monet described the effect of the rooms as “illusion of an endless whole, of a wave with no horizon and no shore.” The viewer is enveloped in this landscape of rippling water, flowers and trees. The overall effect is breathtaking.
The EU scheme also granted me free access to the top of the Arc de Triomphe, which is reached by climbing an incredibly long spiral staircase. But the workout was worth it – the sun came out just as I reached the top, bathing the Eiffel Tower with early evening light, and then, on the other side, illuminating the Sacré-Cœur on the horizon.
And that was where I headed next – la Basilique du Sacré-Cœur and the Montmartre district.
I'd read warnings about petty crime around the basilica, with distractions such as tying a friendship bracelet around unsuspecting tourists' wrists or persuading you to sign petitions. And, on arriving, I noticed a wall spray-painted with the words 'PICKPOCKETS ICI'. So I felt a little apprehensive.
However, once I'd got past the bustling crowds of tourists near the Sacré-Cœur, I relaxed. Before it became part of Paris, Montmartre was a village full of farms and windmills, and the cosy village-like atmosphere is still apparent today. The area is a maze of steep cobbled streets, pretty squares, and even vineyards – the vines of Clos Montmartre have been growing here since at least the 10th century.
Place du Tertre is a great place to stop for a coffee and browse local artists' stalls, and, if you fancy brushing up on your language skills, the nearby Place des Abbesses has a mural that has 'I love you' written in 311 languages.
One of the more unexpected highlights was the Montmartre cemetery. I'd read online that Alexandre Dumas, renowned author of The Three Musketeers, was buried here. I was a little disappointed to learn that the graveyard is actually the resting place of his son of the same name. Even so, the falling leaves, silence, and overcast sky gave this expansive graveyard a wonderfully eerie atmosphere.
Another intriguing Parisian necropolis is Père Lachaise, a few miles south-east of Montmartre. This is the largest and most visited cemetery in the city. Here you'll find the graves of Oscar Wilde, Edith Piaf, Jim Morrison and Frédéric Chopin, among others – just make sure not to get lost whilst wandering the mausoleums and gravestones.
Next, I visited the nearby Atelier des Lumières, an immersive art gallery housed in a converted 19th-century iron foundry. Paintings are projected onto the walls, floor and ceiling, immersing visitors in a world of light and music. The projections flow and swirl entrancingly around you, animating the artwork on a larger-than-life scale. When I visited, the exhibition celebrated the works of the Impressionists – a previous exhibition featured the works of Vincent Van Gogh.
After a few days in the city, I took a day trip to the Chateau de Versailles. Less than an hour away by train, a visit to this 17th century palace is an ideal option if you want a break from the city.
Even from the outside, Versailles is impressive, the pink and white walls featuring gilded detailing. But the interior is perhaps even more stunning, giving you a glimpse into the lives of the 17th and 18th century French aristocracy in the opulently furnished rooms.
I particularly loved the free audio-guide, as it allows you to explore the palace at your own pace whilst learning in-depth histories of each room. I discovered that there are thousands of rooms and over six hundred staircases, and also saw the secret door that Marie Antoinette escaped through when the palace was under siege in 1789.
The gardens of Versailles are on a equally huge scale – I thought the sweeping views I could see from the entrance was the entire grounds, but it turned out to be just a tiny square on the entire map! There's a total of 77 acres, full of quiet groves with bubbling fountains and stately tree-lined avenues. I found it very soothing after the bustle and excitement of the city.
Other hidden gems of Paris
La Galerie Vivienne. One of the city's 19th century covered streets, full of cute boutiques, cafes and an attractive vintage bookshop.
Parc des Buttes-Chaumont (pictured below). As one of the biggest green spaces in Paris, it's difficult to believe you're in the centre of a capital city.
Passage de l'Ancre. Step through a lopsided blue door off Rue de Saint-Martin and you'll find yourself in a small alleyway of cheerfully-painted buildings and draping ivy.
Where to stay
The charming Hotel Le Pavillon is a welcoming, eco-friendly boutique hotel located in a calm, leafy courtyard in the centre of the prestigious, bustling 7th arrondissement.
The 15 individually designed rooms are decorated and furnished to a high standard, with comfortable beds and stylish en-suite bathrooms. Breakfast features organic, locally produced and Fairtrade food, with plenty of vegan options. Stepping out from the garden, you find yourself in Rue Saint-Dominique – a lively and typically Parisian street packed with boulangeries, boutiques and bistros, as well as cafes and little specialist shops selling gifts and home wares.
There's a great view of the Eiffel Tower at the end of the street, and this iconic monument is a short walk away. Also nearby is the Musee d'Orsay, the River Seine, and the Champs-Elysées, and the hotel is well-connected to the rest of Paris too, with La Tour-Maubourg Metro station just a few minutes walk away.
Green Adventures October 2020