- Category: Europe - 2015
- Published: July 10, 2015
- Written by Grant
Instead of doing a day by day breakdown of what we did in Paris I thought it would make more sense to talk about the sites we visited and activities we participated in.
Just to be clear, you cannot do everything in Paris on vacation without moving there. I once calculated that if you went to a different museum every day from Monday through Friday and then used the weekend to see a monument (Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe etc.) it would take you nearly 6 months to see everything. I've known people who've gone to Paris but spent days and weeks just sitting in their apartment then later complained about not having anything to do! If anything Paris has too much and you have to prioritize, just wandering around probably isn't the most effective way of seeing what you want.
Basilica St Denis
The Basilica of St Denis is in what used to be the town of St Denis which was outside the city of Paris. Paris has now absorbed the area and it's more suburb than it's own town. The area has a branch of the Paris University and a great Arab market as well. The area is a bit sketchy so keep an eye on your belongings but I still highly recommend going there.
Before visiting the Basilica I'd also recommend reading the Brief History of France so you know who the people are that you're going to run into. This book is a much shorter telling of the 2000 years leading up to now. There's so much history in these countries that it can be overwhelming. You don't have to be a historian but you will definitely get more out of the Basilica if you have a foundation of who's who in French history. And you'll be amazed that THESE people are here in this building.
Outside of Charlemagne, Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette most people don't know a lot about French royalty so a quick brushup might be in order. The book I've linked above distills 2000 years down to 300 pages and for this basilica I'd focus on 800 AD to 1600 AD (about 50 pages).
The Basilica of St Denis is important because it's where all of the French kings are buried up until Napoleon's time. Napoleon is buried at Les Invalides in the left bank if you want to track him down. The original basilica was built in 475 at about the time the western half of the Roman empire fell – that's pretty early. Most of the current basilica were built in the 1100's and is the prototype for the Gothic style. After the Basilica St Denis was built copies of the Basilica St. Denis popped up all over Europe.
Clovis I, the first king of France was buried in a church near the Pantheon that no longer exists although the bell tower still resides inside the Lycee Henry IV. Later his bones were moved the the Basilica St Denis. Other people buried here are Charles Martel (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Martel), Francis I – the guy who convinced Leonardo de Vinci to hang out with him for the heck of it, Henri II and Catherine de Medici, Louis XIV the Sun King, Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. There are many many other people buried here but you'd have to have some foundations in French history for it to mean anything. I HIGHLY recommend getting that foundation before you go!
While you're in the St Denis area visit the indoor St Denis market and also the outdoor “Flea Market” which sells just about everything from clothes to kitchen utensils. Note: this area is known to be a bit sketchy so keep an eye on your belongings but DO go…
Rodin's house and former studio is a small museum that isn't packed like so many others in Paris. Most of the artwork is in the garden so you can pay for just the garden pass if you want to save a few dollars. I've been in the house and in the garden several times and I enjoy the garden better. There you will see the Gates of Hell, The Thinker and some of this other works. The weather was turning to rain when we went so we didn't dilly dally for too long. The Musee Rodin is near the Eiffel Tower and Les Invalides making it convenient to double up sites in one day.
You have to take the obligatory photo of you thinking in front of the Thinker. The Thinker is probably Rodin's most famous sculpture but it was really just one part of the Gates of Hell. Each portion of the Gates of Hell were also available individually.
I'd been traveling to Paris for 10 years before I finally went into the Pantheon. The guidebooks talked about it being a modern building and to not get it confused with the Pantheon in Rome or the Parthenon in Greece as those buildings were ancient. This is a true statement however it doesn't give the Pantheon credit. The Abbey of St Genevieve was built on this site in 500 AD soon after the fall of Rome. About 1800 AD all of it was demolished except the tower of Clovis which still stands inside the Lycee Henri IV (College Henry IV). The Pantheon was build just one plot over in the mid 1700's. This may seem new but keep in mind it still predates just about everything in the US!
The importance of the building for me is it's current use. After the revolution the Pantheon was converted to a “mausoleum for the interment of great Frenchmen”. Anytime a church is converted into a house of enlightenment I'm all for it. Some of the people who were buried here are Voltaire, Victor Hugo, Emile Zola, Louis Braille, Jean Jaures, Alexander Dumas, Marquis de Condorcet, Marie Curie and Pierre Curie. That's a pretty amazing list!
The inside walls of the building are all painted in murals depicting various scenes in history. I love just sitting on a bench and looking at every detail of the paintings. One could spend a lifetime in this building doing just that.
Paris' most famous cemetery! You could spend a year going over each grave but we hit the highlights, Jim Morrison, Oscar Wilde, Edith Piaf and Chopin… The others are interesting too but you only have so much time.. Make sure you bring a map of the layout and where people are buried as scrolling around on your phone is not very useful as I found out.
The wedding cake church on the hill. A fairly new church built to remember the soldiers lost in the Franco-Prussian war. Sacre Couer is built on Montmartre – the tallest hill in Paris. Monmartre is festooned with tourists, tourist shops, mimes, human statues and such. Go to Sacre Coeur for one thing and one thing only – to climb it! This is not for the faint at heart as there's nearly 300 steps and no room to back out once you start. They make you enter the stair climb in the basement making it seem an even bigger accomplishment. Once you get to the top you're rewarded by Paris's best viewpoint. As you walk on tiny walkways around and between the towers you get to see all sides of Paris. Spend some time, relax and think about life – it's worth the effort. I've done this climb several times and each time I ask myself if I really want to go up there and once I reach the top I answer – YES. Don't mess around with the mimes, silhouette cutters, human statues and tourist shops at the base, just go straight for the stairs – it's why you came.
Versailles is the town of the King's court – Louis XIV to be precise. I have to say one thing concerning Versailles – get here early! If you're leaving Paris at 8 am you're too late. You'll stand in line for 2 hours before getting in. I highly suggest leaving when it's still dark out… The only reason we got in at all this years is because my daughter is handicapped so she goes in a different door. Had we not been able to skip the line we would have got back on the RER train and went back to Paris. I'm really not exaggerating here. Once inside you're jam packed into rooms that the king, or his wife or his kids or his second cousin's wife's handmaidens dog used to live in. The tour groups get a little irritating all cramming together into each room and running over whatever is in their path. I actually took a wheelchair through Versailles and lived to tell about it.
It's best to bring lunch as there's not a lot of choice in the cafe inside the museum. Another choice would be to eat outside the palace at a restaurant but everything in Versailles seems overpriced. On the same street as the train station there's also a Monoprix if you want to assemble your own lunch. We brought ours and ate it in the cafe inside the palace.
If you plan on seeing the grounds be prepared to pay a second time as they're charging for them most of the time now. You can also rent golf carts to cover ground easier. We walked. In the heat.