Paris: Embracing Life and Art
In this second of two episodes on Europe’s “City of Light,” we’ll ride a unicorn into the Middle Ages at the Cluny Museum, take a midnight Paris joyride in a classic car, get an extremely close-up look at heavenly stained glass in Sainte-Chapelle, go on a tombstone pilgrimage at Père Lachaise Cemetery, and savor the Parisian café scene. Few cites are so confident in their expertise in good living — and as travelers, we get to share in that uniquely Parisian “joie de vivre.”
The Riviera it’s not, but this string of fanciful faux beaches -- assembled in summer along a one-mile stretch of the Right Bank of the Seine -- is a fun place to stroll, play, and people-watch on a sunny day (and it’s free!). Besides the sand, beach chairs, hammocks, and potted palms, you’ll also find “beach cafés,” climbing walls, prefab pools, trampolines, boules, a library, beach volleyball, badminton, and Frisbee areas in three zones: sandy, grassy, and wood-tiled. (Other less-central areas of town, such as Bassin de la Vilette, have their own plages.)
The city’s Vélib’ program gives residents and foreigners alike access to more than 20,000 bikes at nearly 1,500 stations scattered around the city. While the curbside stations only accept American Express or chip-and-PIN credit cards, any kind of credit card will work if you buy a subscription in advance online. After payment you’ll get an ID number. To pick up a bike, go to any bike rack, enter your ID number and PIN at the machine (all have English instructions), select a bike, and away you go! Make sure to pick a bike in working order; if a bike has a problem, locals will turn the seat backwards.
This treasure trove of Middle Ages (Moyen Age) art fills old Roman baths, offering close-up looks at stained glass, Notre-Dame carvings, fine goldsmithing and jewelry, and rooms of tapestries. The star here is the exquisite Lady and the Unicorn series of six tapestries: A delicate, as-medieval-as-can-be noble lady introduces a delighted unicorn to the senses of taste, hearing, sight, smell, and touch.
The interior of this 13th-century chapel is a triumph of Gothic church architecture. Built to house Jesus’ Crown of Thorns, Sainte-Chapelle is jam-packed with stained-glass windows, bathed in colorful light, and slippery with the drool of awestruck tourists. Ignore the humdrum exterior and climb the stairs into the sanctuary, where more than 1,100 Bible scenes — from the Creation to the Passion to Judgment Day — are illustrated by light and glass.
Though Paris keeps its historic center classic and skyscraper-free, this district offers an impressive excursion into a side of Paris few tourists see: that of a modern-day economic superpower. La Défense was first conceived more than 60 years ago as a US-style forest of skyscrapers that would accommodate the business needs of the modern world. Today La Défense is a thriving commercial and shopping center, home to 150,000 employees and 55,000 residents. For an interesting visit, take the Métro to the La Défense Grande Arche stop, and climb the steps of La Grande Arche for distant city views. Then stroll gradually downhill among the glass buildings to the Esplanade de la Défense Métro station, and return home from there.
Galeries Lafayette, occupying three buildings, is the city’s must-see store. Enter the main building with the red awnings, and expect crowds in this popular place where every day feels like Black Friday. You can’t miss the sensational belle époque dome (enjoy views from the railing on several floors). Find the champagne-and-coffee bar overlooking the dome just off the central escalator on floor 1 (there are two escalators), then continue your escalation up. Floor 3 offers the best views into the dome area, floor 4 has a McDonald’s, floor 5 has Parisian souvenirs, floor 6 houses a good-value cafeteria with views, and floor 7 delivers a grand, open-air rooftop view (free, a workable place for a simple picnic with Astroturf and plastic chairs and couches). You’ll get a dramatic view of the rear of the Opéra Garnier (rumor has it that the honey sold in the Opéra gift shop comes from the beehives on its roof) and of tout Paris.
Paris’ grandest park, the Tuileries Garden, was once the private property of kings and queens. Today it links the Louvre, Orangerie, and Orsay museums. And across from the Louvre are the tranquil, historic courtyards of the Palais Royal.
Located in the Tuileries Garden and drenched by natural light from skylights, the Orangerie is the closest you’ll ever come to stepping right into an Impressionist painting. Start with the museum’s claim to fame: Monet’s Water Lilies. Then head downstairs to enjoy the manageable collection of select works by Utrillo, Cézanne, Renoir, Matisse, and Picasso.
This user-friendly museum is filled with passionate works by the greatest sculptor since Michelangelo. You’ll see The Kiss, The Thinker, The Gates of Hell, and many more. Well-displayed in the mansion where the sculptor lived and worked, exhibits trace Rodin’s artistic development, explain how his bronze statues were cast, and show some of the studies he created to work up to his masterpiece (the unfinished Gates of Hell). Learn about Rodin’s tumultuous relationship with his apprentice and lover, Camille Claudel. Mull over what makes his sculptures some of the most evocative since the Renaissance. And stroll the gardens, packed with many of his greatest works (including The Thinker). The beautiful gardens are ideal for artistic reflection.
Littered with the tombstones of many of the city’s most illustrious dead, this is your best one-stop look at Paris’ fascinating, romantic past residents. More like a small city, the cemetery is big and confusing, but my self-guided tour directs you to the graves of Frédéric Chopin, Molière, Edith Piaf, Oscar Wilde, Gertrude Stein, Jim Morrison, Héloïse and Abélard, and many more.
Deux Chevaux car tours
If rumbling around Paris and sticking your head out of the rolled-back top of a funky old 2CV car à la Inspector Clouseau sounds like your kind of fun, do this. Two enterprising companies have assembled a veritable fleet of these “tin-can” cars (France’s version of the VW “bug” that hasn’t been made since 1985) for giving tours of Paris day and night. Night is best. The student-guides are informal, speak English, and are passionate about showing you their city. Appreciate the simplicity of the vehicle you’re in. Notice the bare-bones dashboard. Ask your guide to honk the horn, run the silly little wipers, and open and close the air vent — c’est magnifique! They’ll pick you up and drop you at your hotel or wherever you choose. The company 4 Roues Sous 1 Parapluie (4 wheels under 1 umbrella) offers several tours with candy-colored cars and drivers dressed in berets and striped shirts. Paris Authentic offers comparable options.
See the Travel Details above for recommendations highlighted in bold, excerpted from Rick’s guidebooks.
Hi, I’m Rick Steves, back with more of the Best of Europe. This time we’re in a city that puts the sparkle in life like none other: It’s Paris! Thanks for joining us.
Few cities have such a rich artistic, cultural, and historic heritage. And few cites are so confident in their expertise in good living. Paris is understandably a mecca for people determined to embrace life to its fullest — and as travelers, we get to share in that uniquely Parisian joie de vivre.
Returning for another look at this great city, we’ll discover a side of Paris few travelers experience: ride a unicorn into the Middle Ages, take a midnight Parisian joyride, immerse ourselves in Monet’s garden, bask in heavenly light through extraordinary stained glass, go on a tombstone pilgrimage, and savor the Parisian café scene.
Grand as the city is, as we’ll see, it’s still a collection of smaller communities, each with a charming and uniquely French way of embracing life.
Every neighborhood has a time-honored gathering place. Pétanque, also known as “boules,” offers the perfect escape for friends. This competitive, yet convivial game, where friends toss metal balls with the same precision their fathers did, provides the ideal antidote to the pressures of modern life.
Ahh, the Riviera — on the banks of the River Seine. Each summer, the Paris city government closes an expressway and brings a colorful urban beach to its people. They truck in potted palm trees, hammocks, lounge chairs, and 2,000 tons of sand to create this popular fun zone. It’s a perfect chance to see Paris at play...and play with Paris.
Away from the river, parks provide another peaceful oasis — great for enjoying the moment with friends and family.
And Sundays, a happy horde of rollerbladers glide through town with a police escort. Young, old, fast, or slow, it’s another way this city has become a playground for its citizens.
And Paris is now enthusiastically bike-friendly. Bike lanes are commonplace, and bikers are welcome to use bus lanes. The city’s innovative loaner-bike program — with hundreds of these efficient bike racks — lets Parisians make quick one-way bike trips rather than bother with cars or buses. The cost: almost free.
Having all this fun, it’s easy to forget that six centuries ago, Paris was a cultural leader as Europe was awakening from a long medieval slumber.
Just a couple blocks off the river, the Cluny Museum — filling a medieval mansion, takes us back to Paris in the late Middle Ages. In the 1400s trade was beginning to boom, and the Renaissance was moving in like a warm front from Italy.
The Cluny Museum is an under-appreciated treasure. Its rich collection of medieval art offers a rare peek into that mysterious age. The sumptuous ivory pieces, vibrant enamel work, and gorgeous sculptures reflect a surprisingly refined — and far from “dark” — society.
Its centerpiece is a 15th-century series of tapestries called “The Lady and the Unicorn.” In medieval lore, unicorns were solitary creatures that could only be tamed by a virgin. In secular society, they symbolized how a man was drawn to his lady love. In religion, the unicorn was a symbol of Christ.
These exquisite tapestries were inspired by both secular and religious traditions. They give us a peek at life — sensual life — from a time when the people of Paris were just stepping out of medieval darkness. It’s a celebration of all the senses.
Taste: A woman takes candy from a servant’s dish to feed it to her parakeet....while the little dog licks his lovingly woven chops.
Hearing: The elegant woman plays sweetly on an organ, calming an audience of wild beasts. In this fanciful world, humans and their fellow creatures live in harmony in an enchanted garden.
Sight: The unicorn cuddles up and looks at himself in the lady’s mirror, pleased with what he sees. The lion turns away and snickers. As the Renaissance dawns, vanity is a less-than-deadly sin.
Touch. That’s the most basic and dangerous of the senses. Here, the lady “strokes the unicorn’s horn”...and the lion looks out at us to be sure we get the double entendre. Medieval Europeans were celebrating the wonders of love and the pleasures of sex.
The words on our lady’s tent read: “To My Sole Desire.” What is her only desire? Is it jewelry? Or is she putting the necklace away and renouncing material things? Is it God? Love? The unicorn and lion open the tent. Is she stepping out...or going in to meet the object of her desire? Human sensuality is awakening, a dark age is ending, and the Renaissance is emerging.
Another reminder of the sophistication of the Middle Ages was the art of stained glass. To see the best of 13th-century glass in its glorious original setting, visit the nearby church of Sainte-Chapelle.
Embedded in a historic complex of governmental buildings, the church’s muscular Gothic buttresses support the stone roof. The walls are essentially window holders for the church’s stained glass.
Stepping inside, you’re overwhelmed by the most dazzling Gothic interior anywhere. In the Bible, it’s clear: Light is divine. Let there be light. In a Gothic church, light pours through stained glass like God’s grace shining down on earth. Gothic architects used their new technology to turn dark stone buildings into lanterns of light.
In the 13th century King Louis IX obtained the supposed Crown of Thorns. He needed an appropriate place to house the precious relic. So they scrambled and built this church in just six years. Because it was built so quickly — one architect and one set of plans, almost unheard of in Gothic times — the architecture is unusually harmonious.
The altar was raised up high to better display the Crown of Thorns.
Filling the walls on all four sides, the 15 storytelling panels illustrate Bible passages from Creation in Genesis to the story of Christ. Remarkably, most of the stained glass here is original. What you’re looking at is exactly what visitors have marveled at for eight centuries.
For a stark contrast in glass, head out to La Défense — a forest of skyscrapers nicknamed Paris’s “petit Manhattan.”
So often we travelers only hang out in the historic old quarters of Europe’s great cities. To see the contemporary side of Paris — a celebration of modern commerce — hop on the Métro and visit La Défense.
With its striking architecture and 150,000 people a day commuting here to work and even more to shop and play, it’s the engine of a modern-day economic power. Stroll the Esplanade. The glassy buildings — which house shopping malls with hundreds of stores, convention centers, and towering corporate headquarters — playfully compete for your attention.
With the social ethic embraced by French society, getting a building permit often comes with a requirement to fund public art. That’s why the Le Défense Esplanade is like an open-air modern art gallery, sporting pieces that make going to work just a little more fun.
La Grande Arche, inaugurated in 1989 on the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution, is the centerpiece of this ambitious complex. The arch is big — Notre-Dame Cathedral could fit under it. Thousands of people work in its 35 stories. And as everywhere here, the architecture is people-friendly.
Back in the old center, it’s time for a little shopping. Paris is a leader in the fashion world, famous for its high-end design. My Parisian friend, Delphine Prigent, is showing me how even window shopping some of Paris’s many fine boutiques can be a cultural experience.
Rick: These windows, they put so much energy into their windows.
Delphine: Yes, they have to because we, you know, like, shopping is, like, a national sport in France and we call it lèche-vitrine. So lèche-vitrine means “window licking.”
Rick: Window licking!
Delphine: See all these different details that they put on the window — it’s very bright, very colorful.
Rick: Very appetizing, you could say.
Delphine: Yes. It has to be very appetizing, yes.
Rick: There are a lot of sales.
Delphine: Yes. This is a typical period in July to get sales in Paris. But the trap is that when you go inside you always finish by buying the new collection because they put the new collection just beside. You always buy something from the new collection at full price. This is my —
Rick: So the sale catches you inside. And then you buy the new collection.
Delphine: Yes, it catches…yes.
Department stores were invented in Paris. These venerable institutions — beautiful monuments to fine living — offer a chance to check out what’s in vogue.
The Galeries Lafayette is a classic example. Its belle époque dome dates to 1912. And shoppers are welcome to catch their breath — or perhaps have it taken away — on the store’s rooftop, where a grand city view awaits.
You can enjoy another delightful dimension of Paris in its parks. There’s always a garden or park nearby offering a fine place to stroll and simply enjoy a quiet moment in the middle of the city. One of the biggest city parks originated as the king’s back yard, the Tuileries Gardens.
The king’s yard included an indoor garden called “the Orangerie.” While the Orangerie no longer contains plants, today it’s filled with a garden of Impressionist and early-20th-century paintings — select works by Renoir, Cézanne, Gaugin, and others.
And its main attraction is Monet’s Water Lilies, floating dreamily in the oval rooms the artist himself designed to showcase his masterpiece. This series of expansive, curved panels is the epitome of Impressionism. It immerses you in Monet’s garden at Giverny — his home and studio outside of Paris.
Like an aging Beethoven who composed his most dramatic works while losing his hearing, the nearly blind Claude Monet spent his final years painting these symphonies of color on a similarly monumental scale.
We’re looking into his pond — dotted with water lilies and dappled by the reflections of the sky, clouds, and trees on the surface. Monet mingles the pond’s many elements and then lets us sort it out.
The true subject of these works is not the pond itself. It’s the play of the light reflecting off the water. Monet would work on several canvases at the same time — each one catching the light of a particular time of day.
Get close and see how Monet worked. Starting from a blank canvas, he’d lay down thick, big brushstrokes of a single color, horizontal and vertical to create a dense mesh of foliage. Over this, he’d add more color for the dramatic highlights, until he got a dense paste of piled-up paint. Up close, it’s messy — but back up, and the colors resolve into a luminous scene...just pure reflected color.
Working, he’d move with the sun from one canvas to the next. Panning slowly around this hall, you see the pond turn from pre-dawn darkness to clear morning light to lavender late afternoon to glorious sunset. Sublime and tranquil, Monet intended this to be a place of reflection.
Back when Monet was painting, Paris was busy with artists. Capturing the light: That was their passion, and wandering these elegant streets and inviting parks, it’s easy to imagine them gaining inspiration here in Paris, nicknamed the “City of Light.”
A short walk takes us to the palatial mansion, studio, and garden of another great impressionist: Auguste Rodin. Rodin was a modern Michelangelo, sculpting human figures with powerful insight, revealing, through the body, their deepest emotions. Now a museum, this historic mansion presents the full range of Rodin’s work.
His early works match the belle-époque style of the late 19th century — noble busts of bourgeois citizens and pretty portraits of their daughters.
But Rodin had working-class roots, and because of his populist sentiments, the art establishment snubbed him. That’s no wonder. Look at the intensity of this symbol of France as she screams libertié, egalitié, fraternitié.
With his groundbreaking Bronze Man, Rodin came into his own, and was recognized as an artistic force. From this point on, he left convention behind and blazed his own artistic trail.
Here, his Hand of God shapes Adam and Eve from the mud of the earth to which they will return.
Unlike Michelangelo, who selected a piece of marble and then carved a single work of art, Rodin created models, which could then be reproduced and sold as authorized versions.
In The Kiss, a passionate woman twines around a solid man for their first, spontaneous kiss. We can almost read the emotions that led up to this meeting of the lips. The Kiss was the first Rodin work the public loved.
Rodin enjoyed his garden — as do visitors today, who find it a place for peaceful meditation a century after the artist last planted a statue here.
He sculpted the famous Thinker in 1906. Leaning slightly forward, tense and compact, every muscle working toward producing that one great thought, Man contemplates his fate. Said Rodin, “It is a statue of myself.”
Speaking of contemplation, I punctuate my museum-going with a little café sitting. This makes particularly good sense in Paris, home of so much beautiful art — and the ultimate café culture. With over 12,000 cafés, there’s always one nearby.
Cafés are where friends rendezvous...and we’re meeting up with Steve Smith, co-author of my France guidebook and a consummate café sitter.
Rick: You know café, that’s a tip in itself isn’t it? Just “café in Paris.”
Steve: It is a good tip. It’s a place to order what you want, when you want, on your own terms, in your own time, really. You could be indoors at a restaurant watching the person next to you eat, or out here watching the conveyor belt of Parisians go by. And you’re living with Parisians. In fact it’s their living room. You know, most Parisians’ apartments are a little bit bigger than your hotel room.
Rick: Half the locals here are probably living down the street.
Steve: Almost all of them who come here come on a regular basis, and they’re on a first-name basis with their waiter.
Rick: So a lot of Americans find tipping a little bit confusing.
Steve: In France the waiter’s tip is included…15 percent of your bill goes to the waiter. You’ve already paid him. Tax and tip are included.
Rick: What do you do then?
Steve: If your waiter was nice to you, or your waitress, leave a couple of euros. That’s very polite — round up. If your bill was €18 leave €20, something like that.
Rick: Now, a lot of Americans are frustrated by what they call “slow service.”
Steve: Yeah. Yeah, I hear that all the time. In France, slow service is good service.
Rick: It’s good service!
Steve: Remember, it’s not about how fast you eat. It’s about how well you eat.
While the Métro is great, and probably the quickest way to get around, there’s a lot to be said for joy riding across this exciting city above ground. Paris’ buses are plentiful, cheap, and efficient once you get the hang of them. And, bus #69 winds, as if made for tourists, past the city’s top sights.
The end of the line: the Père Lachaise Cemetery. It offers a stroll through a vast garden of permanent Parisians. The final resting place of many of the city’s most notable citizens, its peaceful lanes and paths encourage meandering and contemplation.
Poignant statues remember victims of concentration camps and Nazi resistance heroes. Pebbles on the Jewish tombstones represent prayers.
Many visitors pick up a map and turn the visit into a personal pilgrimage, spending a few moments at the graveside of artists or grand personalities who touched their lives.
Oscar Wilde, the great writer, is also remembered for his daring-at-the-time “homosexual lifestyle.” He’s mourned by “outcast men,” as the inscription reads, and, it seems, by wearers of heavy lipstick.
The famous Parisian singer, Edith Piaf, also attracts fans. Raised in her grandmother’s bordello, as a waif-like teenager she sang in the streets for spare change.
Nicknamed “The Little Sparrow,” she became the toast of pre-WWII Paris, lifted French spirits during the German occupation, and then captured the joy of postwar Paris. While she certainly had her challenges, Edith Piaf embraced life and sang about having no regrets.
Farther down the way, lies a famous American. The rock star Jim Morrison, lead singer of The Doors, has perhaps the most visited tomb in the cemetery. A Greek inscription reads: “To the spirit” (or demon) “within.” Under that, fans leave personal mementos.
Paris was to be Jim Morrison’s chance to get healthy and get serious as a writer. But he died in a bathtub at age 27, probably from an overdose.
Another big star for music lovers is Frédéric Chopin. Fresh-cut flowers on his gravestone speak to the emotional staying power of Chopin’s music, which still connects souls across the centuries.
For a more lively way to enjoy Paris and cap an exciting day, Steve and I have hired a car and a driver for a blitz of the city’s best nighttime views. And this isn’t just any car and driver. This company employs a fleet of historic Deux Chevaux cars, and they’re driven by local students.
Driver: Different districts are like a snail, going around the Island de la Cité.
The French raise floodlighting to an art form. And with a city as beautiful as Paris, it’s no wonder. Les Invalides, with its golden dome marking Napoleon’s tomb, is magnifique. The naughty blades of the Moulin Rouge keep turning as red lights tempt lost souls in Pigalle. Just to be out and about at this hour, the energy of the city is palpable. Notre-Dame is particularly stately after dark. Sightseeing boats enliven the river and its sparkling bridges. The pyramid at the Louvre glows from within. And the Eiffel Tower provides a fitting finale for this victory lap through the City of Light.
Traveling here, I realize I could come back to this city for the rest of my life, and never get enough of what to me is the capital of Europe: Paris. I’m Rick Steves. Until next time, keep on travelin’. Au revoir!