Paris has long been heralded as the home of chic, hip, cutting edge trends, and that notoriety as an avant-garde hotspot is mostly associated with the Left Bank.
That could only mean, jet lagged or not, we were heading into the heart of it.
We hopped on the underground to the neighborhood known as the Latin Quarter, said to epitomize the city’s Bohemian background.
The district is named for the language that the students of France’s oldest university, La Sorbonne, spoken back in the Middle Ages.
Popping out of the Metro we found crowded, narrow streets — alive and vibrant — with bars and cafes, and somehow it seemed perfect.
We wandered aimlessly, as curious observers, while bells rang out periodically.
Generally moving in the direction of the peals, eventually we came upon the Square René Viviani and discovered, tucked away and supported by a couple of concrete braces, the oldest tree in Paris.
The venerable locust tree has been hanging in there since 1601, and still blooms every spring, even after taking a shot from a shell in World War I.
The square is also home to some old stones from Notre Dame Cathedral, which stands just across the river.
Notre Dame c’est magnifique!
(editor’s note: this is from a visit before the fire that damaged the cathedral.)
As we crossed the bridge, the massive church loomed before us.
In the dimming daylight we observed the structure from every possible angle, most likely with our mouths hanging open much of the time.
While the cathedral might be best known to us Americans for the bells we’d been hearing — and the odd little man who rang them — the gargoyles, rose window, and flying buttresses are what most caught our attention.
Built over the course of nearly two-hundred years, beginning in 1163, Notre-Dame de Paris was among the first buildings in the world to incorporate the flying buttress as reinforcements for the walls.
Although they were not part of the original design, its size required the additional support.
As night fell we were thrilled by the various views we encountered, especially lit against the darkened sky.
Perhaps a soul with an unfortunate deformity was hiding in the tower under cover of darkness.
As the bells rang out once more, we knew we had to return the next morning for another look… and an assessment of the inside.
The morning light allowed us a better assessment of the facade, and the restoration that took place after most of the statues were beheaded during the revolution.
Moving our gaze up toward the spire, we may have hoped to spot Quasimodo climbing along the rooftop, but instead found the twelve apostles, captured in surprisingly whimsical poses. These were also added during reconstruction.
Walking inside, we experienced the temporary blindness that comes from going directly out of daylight into relative darkness.
But our eyes soon enough adjusted and the sun streaming through the stained glass windows filled the otherwise dimly lit sanctuary with muted colors.
The glow seemed to be the perfect lighting for such a refuge from the outside world, so we settled into seats to soak it all in for a while. That is our favorite way to absorb overwhelming spaces such as this, by sitting still we are able to observe and process the scope of the building.
Once we were accustomed to both the light and space, we took a lap around the entire interior.
Not to take anything away from the classic cathedral, but we’d have to say we were more impressed with the exterior.
Check out more Notre Dame Cathedral
There is no doubt plenty to see inside, but for outstanding artwork we decided we would do better a few blocks away at the Louvre.
After a quick bite, and a bit of a show watching crepes being expertly created…
…we walked a short distance along the Seine to the imposing gates of the former palace that now serves as one of the world’s premier museums.
Loving the Louvre!
Looking to escape the hustle and bustle of the big city, Louis XIV decided to move from Paris to the Palace of Versailles in 1682.
The Louvre did not immediately become a museum though; it was just over one-hundred years later, when the revolution replaced the royals, that the building was opened to show the collection.
Arriving just after midday, we knew it would be impossible to see the entire Louvre in one afternoon, so our plan was to hit the highlights, GypsyNester style.
To enter the Louvre, we entered the famous/infamous (depending on who we asked) glass pyramid, and went underground.
Unfortunately, we only had an ebook on our iPad (new media?) copy with us. The original is being held for safe keeping at Skyhorse Publishing, just in case it becomes really valuable — or pigs start flying — whichever comes first.
From that coveted position we made our way to the sculptures of ancient Greece, many of which we found to be downright bizarre. A few of our favorites included…
…and Supine Woman With Shocking Surprise on the Front Side (turns out she’s just one of the boys!).
Astonishingly, those were not the actual names. They are all remarkable, masterfully sculpted works of art, and heretofore we shall endeavor to display a modicum of proper decorum.
As if timed perfectly, the sight of Venus de Milo snapped us back to a state of appropriate awe.
<– Here’s what Venus de Milo sees
Named for the Greek Isle Milos, where it was discovered in 1820, she is Aphrodite, goddess of love.
Sculpted over one-hundred years before the time of Christ, she is considered a classic example of ancient Greek sculpture and, despite her loss of limbs, looks mighty good for her age.
Leaving the marble masterpieces behind, we headed to the gallery of Italian artists on a quest to see Leonardo da Vinci’s most famous work, Mona Lisa.
To our surprise, a great many of the people gathered in front of the portrait had their backs to her.
Perhaps her appearance in the background of countless tourist selfies is what’s keeping her smiling these days.
Climbing out from underneath the pyramid, we returned to the courtyard of the Louvre and found a perfect view straight down the Avenue des Champs-Elysées, or Elysian Fields, to the Arc de Triomphe.
Triumphantly conquering the Arc!
Built in 1806 by Emperor Napoleon to commemorate the victory at Austerlitz, the massive arch has gained significance as a memorial for all of the wars since that time and houses the tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
We headed back to the Underground, hoping to make it to the Arc in time for a sunset climb to the top.
The Charles de Gaulle metro stop put us outside of the insane traffic clogging the roundabout that encircles the arch, making it look as though it might be impossible to get to.
Luckily, there is a tunnel underneath the street that made passage possible without risking our lives, and we exited the tunnel just in time to see the changing of the guard at the tomb.
Impressive as the perspective was from the ground, we were more excited to climb to the top for an ultimate view of the city.
A few hundred steps later and a full 360 degree panorama of Paris spread out before us just as darkness was falling.
The vantage point was unbeatable, not only for photographing Gustave Eiffel’s handiwork, but observing the continuous chaos on the roads below.
A dozen roads converge at the circle, making the flow of vehicles look as if it was a living organism coursing through the arteries of the city.
For a final treat before we descended, the moon peeked out of the clouds just as the twinkling lights came to life on the Tour Eiffel.
Take a peek inside the Arc de Triomphe
Mon Dieu! Down deep into the Paris Catacombs
The next day we had one more trip underground to take, but this was of an entirely different nature.
We weren’t headed for a subway, but the subterranean Catacombs.
We had heard that there can be quite a long line waiting to enter the Catacombes de Paris, but more than worth it, so we set aside an entire day for the visit.
Glad we did too, because we hung around for several hours before finally heading down into the underworld.
We easily amused ourselves, and met some interesting people while waiting, but would still recommend using a skip-the-line tour if one is available.
We proceeded past the warning, Stop! This is the Empire of Death, and entered to see for ourselves.
What we found was beyond extraordinary, it was downright bizarre.
Countless bones have been neatly stacked and arranged to form what seem to be endless hallways.
The tunnels and excavations were originally dug as a limestone quarry to supply building material for the world above.
Years later, when several of the city’s cemeteries ran out of room for any more burials, the remains of some six million people were moved into the Catacombs and they became known as The World’s Largest Grave.
There are miles and miles of these corridors, but visitors are only allowed to see a tiny portion.
That section is fortunately reasonably well lit, because wandering off into the maze of darkness beyond any of the blocked off pathways could easily end by getting hopelessly lost and ultimately joining the dearly departed.
We were so fascinated that we did our best to hang back from the rest of the crowd, and after a little while noticed that no one else was around.
It started to feel pretty creepy. At one point we weren’t sure which way to go.
We followed an arrow toward a door and found a sleeping guard blocking it. It was not the exit, and we didn’t want to wake him, so we pressed ahead. Truth be told, we were finding a tiny bit of perverse enjoyment out of our predicament.
Veronica even started mentioning things like, “wouldn’t it be cool if we got locked in here for the night?”
David was less than on board with that idea, so we kept moving forward, correctly assuming that the exit must be around somewhere.
Next thing we knew, we went through a door and out onto a small side street.
But after walking about a mile underground, twisting and turning the entire time, we had absolutely no idea where we were.
Our handy-dandy map was no help at all, so we walked toward the sound of traffic.
Once we hit a main thoroughfare we caught our bearings, made our way to the nearest metro station, and felt relieved.
Even though it meant going back underground.
David & Veronica, GypsyNester.com
See where we stayed in Paris
Want to see our full collection of odd art at the Louvre?
Head deep inside the Catacombes de Paris
Take a peek inside the Arc de Triomphe
Check out more about Notre Dame Cathedral
See more of our antics at the Eiffel Tower
Follow us to Versailles – there’s so much over-the-top royal stuff to share!
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Check out all of our adventures in France!
YOUR TURN: Is Paris at the top of your must-see list? Or have you already checked it off? What would be YOUR first stop in Paris?