Prince’s Purple Rain filled the hot summer night air in Paris, as a chorus of thousands seated on picnic blankets under open skies belted out the well-known lyrics. Fireworks burst from both sides of the Eiffel Tower in an escalading cascade of purple light racing to the top before filling the sky with explosive colour. Welcome to France on Bastille Day – July 14, our first night in Paris.
Purple Rain had been the summer hit of 1984, during a time I spend a year travelling in my early 20s. Now I was accompanying my 17 year old daughter on her first European adventure. With a dash of retro at play, the soundtrack of our travel memories had converged.
I have to admit, when I originally booked our Paris weekend, to kick off a 3-week mother/daughter tour, I didn’t realize that Sat July 14 was Bastille Day – a French national holiday. It was an embarrassing mistake that I discovered only a couple weeks prior to departure. And it was only days before leaving that we learned France would be in the World Cup final against Croatia. The big game scheduled for late day Sunday would no doubt bring the country of raging fans to a halt. Both of these events had presented a new Paris planning wrinkle. They would either make our weekend epic, or a bitter disappointment of crowds and closures if we didn’t get it right. An additional flight delay had presented a final challenge, since crowds on their way to Arc de Triumph for the huge annual military parade that morning, could gridlock transit in the area.
Luckily our accommodation at Hotel Villa Modigliani in the Montparnasse area was a straight run on the RER-B line from Charles de Gall airport. We secured early check in and hit the town running by noon, stopping for lunch at a café and idled away early afternoon with a Parisian lunch while people watching and waving to the streams of military vehicles honking horns and celebrating through the streets, post parade.
The Hotel des Invalades, with its signature dome of gold, unmistakable across the rooftops of Paris, was first up on our walking tour. Constructed in 1671, it housed up to 4,000 veterans at one time, and is the site of Napolean’s tomb beneath the cathedral dome. We literally walked in through the “back door”, greeted by a few Bastille Day soldiers, and because it was a national holiday, entrance was free. We only realized our good fortune, when we walked out the front door an hour later, and saw a huge line of people waiting to get in from the front gardens area. So far Bastille Day was working to our favour.
We toured along the La Seine and then decided to visit to Arc De Triumph, Napolean’s arch celebrating battle victories, rationalizing that once the parade had concluded it might actually not be that busy. My daughter was under 18, so her entrance was free, and because I had downloaded a QR code link for quick purchase as the cue started to form, we skipped the line, flashing our passes like rock stars at security. Hiking up the 247 circular steps we got a great view or Paris from the top and grabbed our first skyline photo of the city, and noted the long line forming below. Evidently we had arrived just as it was being opened again for public tours.
On our way back towards the Champ de Mars, we grabbed some fresh “rolled” ice cream in a cup – poured, flavoured, frozen and scraped to perfection, from a street vendor, which had been on my foodie daughter’s wish list while in Paris.
We finished the day off with a picnic Parisian style on a blanked beneath the Eiffel Tower, dining on a baguette, cheeses, meats, fruit and some rose wine acquired en route. We spent the evening in Parc de Champ de Mars, listening to orchestra and opera arias, and later watching Eiffel Tower fireworks light up the sky to rock music. While the walk back to our hotel was long, crowded and hot, we both agreed that the hours in our first day, coupled with an 8-hour time zone change, had seamlessly melted into what felt like multiple days. The shower and a good bed never felt so good.
Following a classic French breakfast with one too many chocolate croissants, and jacked up on coffee to ward off the jetlag, we walked through the city gardens of Palais du Luxembourg. Kids poked sailboats with sticks on the pond, and families generally lazed about. But it felt like the entire country was putting in time until the big World Cup football (soccer) game later that afternoon.
Spotting what we later learned were likely the last two France WC t-shirts in Paris, displayed at a small shop en route, we quickly snagged and bagged them to wear while cheering on the home team later that afternoon.
Since it was Sunday, our timing was perfect to attend mass at Notre Dame Basillica, and while not catholic it didn’t stop us from enjoying the beautiful music, scripture and atmosphere all for free. Notre Dame, built in 1163 with construction continuing over 170 years, is the “heart” of France, both geographically and spiritually. Displays from the 850 birthday celebration in 2013 were quite an eye-popping realization for my daughter, a Canadian teen from a country that only had its 150 birthday last year.
No trip to Paris would be complete without a visit to the Louve, and I was starting to wonder if that might be when our luck would run out. We had heard horror stories of huge line-ups, requiring time ticket reservations. Indeed I had checked all this out online, and in the end abandoned reserving, being uncertain how the World Cup and Bastille Day celebrations might play into our plans.
Evidently, going to the Louve three hours before the World Cup final was the perfect time to visit. There were absolutely no line-ups and we walked straight in.
They were to be closing at 5pm to allow traffic control for the game, but we used our time well to see the Mona Lisa, Venus de Milo and numerous other French and European paintings and sculpture. But having a Swiss Army knife in my bag (for the baguette, cheese and wine) was an unplanned security wrinkle. Leaving it at the entrance provided some drama at closing, when we realized our exit was through a different gate, and the original entrance had since been fenced off. My daughter decided to hike the fence and run across the square like an escaping East German in the cold war days, determined to retrieve it. I figured by the time they caught her, being young pretty, not to mention fast, she’d chat them up in French and retrieve the knife they had promised to hold for us.
The Mona Lisa in one direction and her admirers in the other!
Later in the day we happened onto an outdoor bistro while walking back along La Seine, serving cold beer and setting up a big screen and speakers for game viewing. It was outside and cooler and seemed a better choice then our original plan for the Latin Quarter, plus our arrival just before the crowds spotted it as a prime viewing location, was perfect.
Watching the game with a mix of locals and visitors was a chorus of shouts, high fives, and rounds of beer, made even more fun when France won, the first time taking back the title in 20 years. It was the beginning of an evening and early morning run of unbelievable celebration in Paris streets. We later wandered up Quai des Tuileries and had dinner and rose wine along the street at a lovely bistro, and watched cars, scooters and flag draped people ride back and forth along the streets, the joyriding becoming increasingly daring, as alcohol no doubt fueled many celebrants. We made our way back through the Latin Quarter, where street dancing and music was turning to car rocking, and later deteriorated into a messy street scene of destruction, but we escaped that too just in time.
We topped off the evening with a crepe at Chez Suzette, where a local fellow recommended we go before leaving Paris and the evening wrapped up back in the quiet courtyard of our hotel, sipping cold beer, courtesy of a street reveler who insisted we help lighten his load walking back on the still lively streets at 2am.
Remarkably, what would normally have been crowded in Paris was not, on what should have been the busiest weekend of the summer. We were exceedingly lucky with our timing on both days.
Did we miss out on doing some things I might have otherwise planned such as seeing the Musee d’Orsay, actually getting up the Eiffel Tower, or checking out some late night jazz in the Latin Quarter? Yes, but that just leaves something on my list for a return trip with my husband. Did we work the time boundaries of an unusually busy weekend in Paris to our advantage and do it less expensively then normal? You bet.
When travelling, I believe in advanced planning, but also adapting schedules as necessary, and always leaving extra uncommitted days to be open to a little serendipity. But sometimes you just need to scrap your advanced plan all together, and go with the flow. And that’s usually when good luck presents itself and the best travel memories are made.
There are many places available to rent in Paris. We’ve had great experience researching and booking with Booking.com – it’s a great way to keep all of your travel accommodation sorted in one place. Cancellation policies are very reasonable, and most places only require a credit card to hold, with a deposit due the week, or in some cases only 24hrs before the day you arrive. The style of accommodation will vary, and as with many European places, you may need to redefine small – as quaint, street noise – as conveniently centrally located, and stairs instead of an elevator – as exercise. Embrace it all as part of an amazing experience.
Pack light, experience more TIPS for this trip:
We both took carry on for our personal items on this trip, but because we were “wheel mules” delivering a bag of heavy race wheels for my son’s IDF Europe race competitions, we used one checked bag allotment for that, and topped it up with camping gear for us and a light weight bag to check it in on the return once the wheels had been delivered. Here’s what we took: expandable light weight MEC purse/backpack combo (great as a personal item on the plane and purse while travelling, but also doubled as a backpack for day hikes, expandable light weight Windriver day backpack (both of these items would fold into the size of a tennis ball when not used), runners (for hiking), sundress and sandals (flat sporty for casual and wedge heel for dress – both work on cobblestones), 3 shorts, 4 tops – a couple sleeveless, sunhat, wool cardigan sweater – lightweight but warm, can be dressed up for cool evening with scarf, stretch jeans (that can be rolled up casual, or down with wedge heels dressed up), crop pants, undies, socks, bikini, sarong (for beach cover up or picnic blanket), make up and toiletries – using small liquid containers. The key with all items was to take colours that coordinated – black, beige or grey and accent colours, and for everything to be wrinkle free and quick dry for washing. We would wash and hang dry items overnight when we were staying for several days. And I always roll, not fold items – fewer wrinkles and items fit in spaces in a suitcase more easily. No space goes unused – that includes inside shoes. For camping we brought along a small tent, compact sleeping bag, fleece blanket, sleeping mats, micro towel, headlamps, folding waterbottle and Swiss Army knife (in the checked wheel bag). And I always pack a large lightweight but compact MEC duffel bag inside my luggage to allow for an expanded load coming home. On this trip we brought the camping gear back in it, plus other items we could afford to not have for several days if it went missing, to make room for some souvenirs retrieved along the way. Shoes take up a lot of space generally, so we always try to anticipate what will be needed for where we plan to go. On this trip I got it down to Sole sandals, wedge heel dressier sandals and running shoes.
Link here for my PACKING LIGHT downloadable tips sheet and check list, that includes travel documents, essentials, clothing and general tips on other important things like insurance and data SIM cards.