In any season, the City of Light enchants the first-time
Church bells from Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris woke me. I opened my window and let the cool, crisp breeze envelop me. This was Paris in December. I wanted to experience the city’s holiday magic, visit attractions I’d missed on earlier visits, and walk with no destination in mind, just breathing in the sights and sounds of this grand city. I did all of it–and more.
Daylight hours are shorter in winter but clear skies and holiday lights, strung like jeweled necklaces in trees and across boulevards, offer more than adequate compensation. It’s as if the city glows from within, full of energy and excitement.
Temperatures average 40 degrees, so winter attire is definitely in order, although it was warm enough to forego hats and gloves on several days during my visit. I didn’t expect to see people sitting outside at cafés and pansies blooming in parks.
Most attractions are closed Christmas and New Year’s Days but otherwise, this city for all seasons is in full swing. Without having to compete with hordes of tourists, I found shorter lines and smaller crowds. I walked right into the Musée d’Orsay to view impressionist and post-impressionist masterpieces. There was a short wait in line at the Centre Pompidou, which presents contemporary art, because I arrived before it opened.
Expect to do lots of walking, even if you take public transportation. Both the metro rail and buses are safe, convenient, and inexpensive. Hailing a cab can be tough. It’s best to wait at a designated taxi stand or call ahead. Note that the cabs with the illuminated “Taxi Parisien” signs on the vehicles’ roofs are the officially licensed taxis.
For transportation and sightseeing, consider purchasing a Paris Pass, which is a passport to popular museums, sightseeing cruises, and public transportation. You could save up to 10 percent with the pass, which starts at 15 euros.
Be up-to-date on what’s going on in the city by picking up a copy of Pariscope, a weekly magazine that details cultural activities for the week. It’s available at newsstands.
In December, all the large churches have crèches (nativity scenes) on display. At Notre-Dame, a magnificent wooden nativity carved from walnut by Jiri Netik of the Czech Republic was on view. Another church, Église de la Madeline, showcased a 20-foot-long display–including a nativity scene–that depicted in intricate detail the people, homes, and animals of Provence.
Holiday markets were set up throughout the city, many near the churches. These little open-air shops were filled to overflowing with homemade crafts, food, and gifts. Tourists and Parisians shopped for last-minute Christmas gifts, many of them sipping vin chaud (hot mulled wine) as they browsed.
I loved strolling just after dark, gazing into storefronts and small cafés before choosing a place for dinner. Soup or stew, bread, and a cup of tea filled the bill nicely for me. There’s no need to go to expensive restaurants for a good meal in Paris unless that’s part of your vacation budget.
My splurge was dining at 58 Tour Eiffel, Paris’ fashionable brasserie on the first level of the Eiffel Tower. Both the ambiance and the food were magnificent. I dined on champagne, lobster bisque, rich beef marrow served in the bone, beef pot-au-feu (beef stew), chocolate mousse with white chocolate stars, and coffee.
It was great fun to window shop along the Grands Boulevards–especially to see Printemps and Galeries Lafayette, two iconic department stores on Boulevard Haussman. I mingled with large crowds to get a peek at elaborate window displays where teddy bears danced, Santa was checking his list twice, and exotic Parisian attire encouraged fantasies of the glamorous life. If you visit in January, you’ll likely hit one of the biannual sales and find discounted French fashion.
On Christmas Eve, I attended a concert at St. Ephrem, a small church near my hotel. The performance of classical music by a string quartet gave me chills.
Some days, I experienced the ambiance of Paris as a flâneur–a leisurely walker–imagining the urban explorers and literary types from the late 19th and early 20th centuries walking the same streets. I also had the incredible good fortune to connect with Australian-born writer John Baxter whose book, The Most Beautiful Walk in the World: A Pedestrian in Paris, I had read and loved. Baxter, who now lives in Paris, offers walking tours of the city. We spent an afternoon together walking narrow cobblestoned streets in the Saint-Germain-des-Prés neighborhood as he shared his wealth of knowledge with me.
Paris is a city for all seasons. Fashion your visit however you’d like; the City of Light will not disappoint.
Joan Elliott is a contributor from Lake Sherwood, Mo.
May/June 2014 Issue
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