by Amy Mallett

Ah, Paris. Just saying the word conjures a feeling of wistful longing and evokes a little, breathy sigh. I can attest that everything you’ve ever heard about it in a song or seen in a movie is true: Paris is a magical, mystical place. With the exception of picking up a flu bug just before leaving, my three days there were fantastic.

Paris is the embodiment of romance. From the moment you arrive, the city wines and dines you. It woos you with the sight of the Eiffel Tower and the sound of the Seine rushing below, whispering secrets for only you to hear. It holds your hand as you walk down the Champs Élysées and is an amiable table companion as you sip wine in a café.

I had several moments in Paris that literally took my breath away. When I arrived by train on a
Wednesday night, it was nearly dark, so I didn’t get my first real glimpse of the city until I walked up the stairs from the underground Metro stop. I thought my heart was going to pound out of my chest. As I emerged, the first thing I saw (it was impossible to miss, right in front of me) was—voilá—the
Palais du Louvre. I would have set my bags down and just whirled around in a circle, giggling like a little girl, if I didn’t think doing so would have immediately marked me as an American tourist and a pickpocket target.

My hotel, a tiny studio apartment-style room with a small balcony overlooking the Comédie-Française and a roundabout, was about a block and a half away at the Citadine Louvres. I was exhausted, but took a quick walk up to the Opera House (all aglow with those famous Paris lights), grabbed a chicken salad at a café, and capped it off with a scoop of coffee ice cream (for about $5) from the Häagen-Dazs shop next door.

In the morning, I walked down the Seine to the Eiffel Tower, which took the better part of an hour, but was a great way to get my bearings. (A warning to visitors: landmarks may be farther away than they appear.) Seeing of the top of the tower rising above the buildings for the first time marked my second breathtaking Paris moment in less than twelve hours. Unfortunately, the top observation deck was closed for construction, so I could only go up to the second level. Still, the view (along with the slanting elevator ride) was quite thrilling.

After that adventure, I walked over to the Champs Élysées for lunch. Much of my high school French came back fairly quickly and I was able to order with no problem. I felt smug sitting there in a real, live French cafe with my omelette au fromage and steaming cup of café au lait. Never had simple eggs and cheese tasted so good. In Germany, it’s always a crapshoot to see if what I’ve intended to order is what actually ends up arriving at my table. In Paris, I felt much more confident.

I spent the afternoon walking, and when my legs finally wore out, took a two-hour bus tour of the city.

For dinner, I crossed the street from my hotel to dine at a café facing the Comédie-Française. I had a delicious, warming bowl of authentic French onion soup, a glass of red wine, and a little chocolate cake with vanilla cream, which I have no idea how to pronounce but makes my mouth water now just writing about it. It was like a scrumptious, gourmet King Don [Ding Dong]. (Maybe this is where Hostess got the idea!)

The next day, I braved the Metro once again to head up to Place Pigalle and Montmartre, just north of the city near Sacre Coeur. A big artist community (Renoir and Picasso lived and painted here), the area now seems seedy and run down. This was the first and only time I didn’t feel entirely safe while in Europe. However, Sacre Coeur more than made up for my discomfort. Its white domes gleam from the mountainside like a sentinel, and although it was cloudy when I was there, I imagine that in the sunlight they shine like they’ve been kissed by heaven itself. I walked up what felt like a million stairs to the entrance, and was absolutely enchanted to find mass being held inside. Tourists could still walk around the outer part of the basilica, but the service just added a whole other level to the experience. It was so moving that tears came to my eyes. I’m not Catholic, but it’s impossible not to feel in God’s presence here.

I took the Metro back and walked over to the Latin Quarter for lunch. The Sorbonne is located here, and the area is abuzz with academic energy, bookstores, and restaurants. The omelette au fromage I’d had the day before was so good, I decided to order another. After refueling, I walked over to Notre Dame—another awe inspiring sight to behold—but to be honest, I would have to say I prefer Sacre Coeur if forced to choose. I also did a quick lap around the top floor of the Museé D’orsay to see the Impressionist exhibit. I had hoped to get to the Musée du Louvre as well, but time got away from me, so I’ll save it for my next visit.

Restaurants here (and in Germany, too) make it easy to see what they offer by posting their menus outside for you to examine before entering. Many French eateries offer formule menus, which allow you to choose an entree and an appetizer, or an entree and a dessert—or all three—for a set price anywhere from twenty to forty euros. Everything comes with baguette slices, but no butter. Standard casual French café fare seems to be omelettes, salads, the ubiquitous Croque Monsieur (a grilled ham and cheese sandwich), wine, and beer. Tarte tatin, an upside-down apple cake, appears to be the signature French dessert most places. Street-side snack vendors sell crêpes with powdered sugar or Nutella filling, as well as (oddly enough) hot dogs.

For my last dinner in Paris, I found another charming little café called Brasserie Medova. I decided to treat myself to a full meal of roast chicken with garlicky little haricots verts (green beans), baguette (of course), red wine, and a divine, melt-in-your-mouth crème caramel with mandarin oranges. As I was savoring the last few mouthfuls, I heard Barry Manilow playing and thought I’d died and gone to heaven. (As anyone who knows me knows, I’m a HUGE Fanilow.) I went back to my hotel, happily exhausted and with a belly full of French food and wine, humming to myself “Could it be Magic.” In Paris the answer, dear Barry, is oui, oui, oui!

The next morning, it was time to bid Paris a fond and reluctant au revoir and head back to the train station. And thus ends my adventure in the City of Lights.