Paris: Grand & Intimate
See more travel details for recommendations highlighted in bold, excerpted from Rick's guidebooks.
Hi, I'm Rick Steves, delighted to be your travel partner. This time we're returning to Europe's grandest city. We're cruising the Seine River through Paris. Thanks for joining us.
Paris was born — over 2,000 years ago — on this island. There's the Notre Dame. Marie Antoinette spent her last night in that building. And there's the Eiffel Tower, built to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the French Revolution.
Paris is littered with history. Even the bridges — given to Paris by a king or emperor — tell a story. "N" means that one's from Napoleon. And this bridge is an aerial art show.
As we return for another look at Paris, our theme is a city of art — from grand buildings, paintings, and statues to the small intimate delights which contribute to the fine art of good living... Parisian living.
Beyond the grand buildings, we'll find a city simply in love with life.
We'll tour the Louvre and stroll the Champs-Elysees. But we'll also feel the pulse of Paris... in village-like neighborhoods, in cafes, and in the people.
Establish a foothold in Paris by choosing a neighborhood and making it home. The street I keep coming back to is near the Eiffel Tower. It's Rue Cler.
My friend Marie-Alice lives above her restaurant and shops nearly every morning on Rue Cler.
Rick: Hey Marie.
Marie-Alice: Hello Rick, come shopping with me, because I'm in a hurry, like always.
Rick: Marie-Alice, are all the bakeries the same?
Marie-Alice: No, not at all, this is why you have people loyal to one boulangerie and not another because they choose the kind of bread.
Rick: Those were beautiful pastries in there.
Marie-Alice: This boulangerie has a talented pastry man. And in a boulangerie you will get good bread, but not good pastry, here, they have the two, this is why I go there.
And every neighborhood needs a cheese shop... a fromagerie. What looks like a festival of mold to some is a delight to others.
Marie-Alice: You see in every corner of Paris you have a cheese shop, and this is life for us. We need to smell cheese, we need to eat cheese. You see, look at that. So many cheeses, look at that. All goat, goat, goat, everywhere. About thirty different kinds of goat cheese. Look at that Rick, how it smells, it's beautiful; it melts in your mouth, and gives you the smell of the feet of an angel. You see, Rick, on the small cheeses you can eat the skin, like the Brie and the Camembert, it's part of the package.
Les meules are huge rounds of cheese from which hard cheeses are cut. You don't eat the skins of these cheeses. This one's 80 kilos... made with a thousand liters of milk.
Rick: It's beautiful with the flowers.
Marie-Alice: This is a beautiful fish, look at the St. Jacques. You see we eat all of it, all of it, because this is the best part.
Rick: It looks like the poison part. Marie-Alice. Why don't you go to the supermarket, it's more efficient and faster.
Marie-Alice: No, it's not the same at all. Here you have selected the product, good product, with taste.
Rick: There's a difference from the supermarket to here?
Marie-Alice: Of course it's different. This is truth, especially for the quality. In the supermarket it's not the same.
Rick: Marie-Alice, how do you know a good butcher?
Marie-Alice: We know a good butcher through the medallion, which are hanging up there, because they come from the neck of the veal. It proves the butcher is buying the meat on its foot.
Rick: On the hoof we say.
Marie-Alice: First prize of honor, first prize of excellency, and first prize of honor. So we know he is a very good butcher.
Rick: Marie-Alice, thank you very much, merci bien.
As a tour guide, I love turning groups loose on a street like Rue Cler.
The Marais — across town — is another great Parisian neighborhood. Once a mucky slum... Marais means swamp... King Henry IV worked to gentrify it. In the 17th century, Place des Vosges became the centerpiece of the finest neighborhood in town.
A stroll through the city's oldest square reminds me that for many, Paris is not just a collection of world class museums, but home, a place to meet a lover, enjoy a relaxed retirement, or raise a family.
In the 19th century as Paris' high society moved elsewhere, immigrating Jews settled in the Marais This neighborhood remains Paris' Jewish Quarter — the largest in Western Europe. The community is centered around Rue Des Rosiers.
Paris's new Museum of Jewish Art and History fills a 17th century Marais mansion. Its theme: Jewish culture in France from the Middle Ages through today.
I was lucky enough to have a person from the museum show me around.
Exhibits are explained in French and English. These wedding rings — many owned by the synagogue and passed down from generation to generation — are symbolic of the bond of marriage. For Jews, marriage is the ultimate purpose of divine creation, a metaphor for the union between God and His people, between Israel and the Torah.
This 300-year-old gilded silver Torah case demonstrates the Jewish focus on the written word of God. An exquisitely decorated miniature, it was designed to be mobile for private use.
And the museum explains the emancipation of the French Jews. In 1789, with the Revolution, Jews were declared "French citizens of Israelite faith" — a welcome part of the new French Republic.
Now Jews could build synagogues and worship openly rather than in secret oratories.
The revolutionary emancipation of France's Jews was a promising start.
The symbolic launch pad of the French Revolution was a prison which stood on this square in the Marais. It was called the Bastille and in 1789 angry Parisians stormed it, released its prisoners, and tore it down. One of Europe's great non-sights, there's nothing left to see.
Today, the square is marked by the Bastille Opera House, and these days Parisians come here not to overthrow the government, but to enjoy a performance. It was inaugurated on the 200th anniversary of Bastille Day in 1989.
While these lanes feel peaceful and content today, during times of revolution they hid hotbeds of discontent.
Before French political leaders learned the wisdom of subsidizing the cost of baguettes, hungry peasant mobs would set up barricades in narrow lanes like these.
Generals were fond of quieting the streets by loading chains and nails into cannon and giving the malcontents what they called "a whiff of grapeshot."
Later, Napoleon III commissioned Baron Haussmann to rip up most of medieval Paris and create the city's grand boulevards.
Great city planning... but really great military planning. Heavy artillery and grand armies work better with long broad streets as battlefields. Paris was made both more elegant... and easier to rule.
Today, like a citywide game of "connect the dots," wide Parisian boulevards lead to famous landmarks: the Pantheon... the old opera... and the Arc de Triomphe.
Europe's grandest boulevard is the Champs-Elysees. Built for the queen in the 1600s, it originated as a carriageway leading away from the palace gardens. Eventually, Napoleon crowned it with the grand Arc de Triomphe. The boulevard has been the place for military parades and serious shopping for generations.
While now a bit hamburgerized, the Champs-Elysees still sparkles with Parisian elegance... top-notch cinemas, packed cafes, luxury car dealerships, and shopping meccas.
Where else but in Paris will you find a perfume store this extensive? In this circle of scents, a master perfumer known as 'the nose' helps customers find exactly the character of perfume that they're looking for, no matter how unusual.
Rick: Let me try, I like the smell of the fireplace.
Saleswoman: Okay, I have it actually.
Whatever your desire...woody or sensual, tart or flowery... you'll find it here.
Saleswoman: I'll let you smell this one first, and you tell me.
Rick: Yes, that's nice, it reminds me of my fireplace.
In France, one out of two men and nine out of ten women use perfume. Leave it to the Parisians to transform an industry into an art form.
Paris is a constantly revolving outdoor art gallery. Here, hovering over the Seine, on my favorite picnic bridge — is an exhibit called Custer's Last Stand. It's not just a tourist attraction. These are local people. It's another example of the art of Parisian living.
While Paris has plenty of entertaining temporary exhibits, the thrill of the Louvre is unrivaled and permanent as can be. Once the biggest palace for the ultimate king, now it's the world's grandest art gallery with over 300,000 works of art, taking us from ancient times to about 1850.
Under the modern pyramid entry, signs lead to three wings. We'll limit our quick visit to the Denon wing. The collection is overwhelming. Don't even try to cover it all in one visit. Enjoy an excuse to return.
The Grand Gallery — a quarter mile long — displays only a small part of the Louvre's collection. We'll see a few paintings representative of three styles: Renaissance, Neoclassical, and Romantic.
François I was France's Renaissance king. He brought to the palace the spirit of organizing and sharing the royal art collection. His private paintings became the core of the Louvre's collection.
It was trendy for kings to have a Renaissance genius in their court. One of Europe's greatest kings, François I, got Europe's top genius: Leonardo da Vinci.
Leonardo's Virgin, Child, and St. Anne is pure Renaissance. Here we have three generations: grandmother, mother and child all assembled into a pyramid, solid and balanced. The typical Leonardo landscape shows distance by getting hazier and hazier.
And this portrait of the wife of a Florentine banker, Mona Lisa, was Leonardo's masterpiece. More textbook Renaissance: Her body is solid and statue-like, a perfectly balanced pyramid angled back so we can see its mass. Her arm — level with the frame — adds stability and realism. And again, Leonardo creates depth in Mona's dreamy backyard.
For me, this painting sums up the Renaissance: balance, confidence and humanism — the era when the common individual — Mona Lisa — becomes art-worthy.
This museum is one of the world's oldest — opened to the public during the French Revolution in 1793. I guess it just makes sense. You behead the king, inherit his palace and a royal collection of art, open the doors, and Voilà — a people's museum.
Like the museum, Napoleon was a product of the Revolution. One of the Louvre's largest canvases shows one of Europe's largest coronations: Napoleon's. The pope traveled from Rome to crown Napoleon. But, Europe's most famous megalomaniac pretty much ran the coronation show himself. The pope looks a little neglected.
The revolution was all about ending kings... so Napoleon crowned himself emperor. The politically correct art style of the time was Neoclassical.
Napoleon would approve of everything in this room. Greek, Roman, heroic, or patriotic themes; clean, simple and logical — it's pure neoclassical. This Parisian woman, wearing ancient garb and a Pompeii hairdo, reclines on a Roman-style couch — perfectly in style.
Neoclassicism was an intellectual movement. After all, during the Revolution, everything was subjected to the test of reason. Nothing was sacred. If it wasn't reasonable, it was rejected.
The reaction to neo-classicism? A Romantic Movement. Romanticism.
Romanticism meant putting feeling over intellect, passion over restrained judgment. Logic and reason were replaced by a spirit that encouraged artists to be emotional and create not merely what the eyes saw but also what the heart felt.
What better setting for an emotional work than a shipwreck? In Gericault's Raft of the Medusa, we see a human pyramid ranging from death and despair at its base to a pinnacle of hope as one of the survivors spots a ship — which ultimately comes to their rescue. If art controls your heartbeat... this is a masterpiece.
The Romantic Movement championed nationalistic causes of the 19th century. Delacroix's Liberty Leading the People shows the people once again asserting their power and raising the French flag at a barricade in those troublesome back streets of Paris.
I punctuate my museum going with a little cafe sitting. This makes particularly good sense in Paris: home of Europe's most grueling museum — and its first cafe. With over 12,000 cafes in Paris, there's always one nearby.
The French eat long and well. Good lunches, long dinners, and endless hours sitting in outdoor cafés "remaking the world" are the norm.
In France, consider the cuisine sightseeing for your palate. And, when you know the budget options, eating at the corner cafe or bistro costs only a little more than lunch at a fast food joint.
The plat du jour is the French plate of the day, a classy blue-plate special. And the house salad makes a quick healthy meal. Whatever you order, remember bread is free. Hold up your basket to ask, "S'il vous plait." Don't snap your fingers and say "garçon." That's rude.
Une carafe d'eau, a free carafe of tap water, is either on the table or will be quickly if you ask. A glass of house wine costs no more than a soft drink in France. While prices include service and tax, it's polite to leave a few coins for a drink or meal well served.
As the shops and museums close and darkness falls on the City of Light, different amusements take center stage. Pigalle is Paris' red-light district. Nicknamed "pig alley" by American soldiers in World War I, it was a land of Ooh la la long before that. In Pigalle's bars, bottles of cheap champagne cost a fortune and come with company.
And amid all the red lights spins the famous Moulin Rouge nightclub. Formidable! — Or so it claims. While Parisians are a rarity here, tour groups — especially from Asia and Eastern Europe — still pack the place nightly.
Can-Can can be fun, but I think it's one of those cultural cliches kept alive only by the tourist trade. I'd rather join the locals at a jazz or swing club. With a lively mix of American, French and international musicians, Paris has been a jazz capital since World War II. Caveau de la Huchette is a characteristic old club. Locals fill this ancient Latin Quarter cellar with frenzied dancing nightly.
It's Sunday morning and as they have for 700 years, locals and travelers alike flow into the Notre Dame Cathedral.
But rather than a stop here, I'm headed for another church. On the way, a thoughtful pause, just across the street.
Paris' Deportation Memorial remembers the 200,000 mainly Jewish French victims of Nazi concentration camps. It draws you into their experience. Once inside, you feel alone. Surrounded by walls, you become a prisoner — teased by a lofty sky and a free-flowing river. The circular plaque in the floor reads, "They descended into the mouth of the earth and they did not return."
Two-hundred-thousand crystals, one for each French citizen that died in Nazi camps, lead to a distant but persistent flame of hope. Remember the message: "Forgive but never forget."
On Sunday mornings, when I'm in Paris, you're likely to find me here... in the St. Sulpice church with its magnificent pipe organ. For organ lovers, a visit here is a pilgrimage.
After Mass, organ enthusiasts from around the world scamper like 16th notes up the spiral stairs into a world of 7,000 pipes.
Before electricity, it took three men, working out on these 18th century stairmasters, to fill the bellows, which powered the organ. The current organist, Daniel Roth, carries on the tradition of welcoming guests into the loft to enjoy his performance.
A commotion of music lovers crowd around a tower of five keyboards below a forest of pipes.
St. Sulpice has a rich history with a line of 12 world-class organists going back over 200 years. Like kings or presidents, the lineage is charted on the wall. And overseeing all this: Johann Sebastian Bach.
This music continues to fill the spiritual sails of St. Sulpice as it has for centuries, and it's just another reason I consider Paris the cultural capital of Europe.
Whether celebrating a little Bach or the best baguette on the street, the art of Parisian life plays on. I hope you enjoyed our springtime in Paris. I'm Rick Steves. Until next time, keep on travelin'. Au revoir!
See more travel details for recommendations highlighted in bold, excerpted from Rick's guidebooks.