It is possible to enjoy Paris without taking out a second mortgage.
Some travellers are avoiding France because of the financial crisis and the low value of the Aussie dollar, also known as the Pacific peso. But with discipline and the information in this article we can appreciate one of the world’s most beautiful cities.
Let’s begin with the basics: accommodation, food and transport. Hotels in Paris are expensive. Instead, I rented an apartment by putting an advertisement on Craigslist.com, paying $70 a night for a double room about 100 metres from the Louvre. Hotels in the area cost triple that even for one star accommodation.
Craigslist is a web site that functions like a newspaper’s classified section. Placing an advert is free and takes five minutes. I received more than a dozen replies to my five-line query.
Beware of scams, though, especially people who require money in advance. I received photos of an alleged luxury apartment in central Paris from a man claiming to be a doctor working in Nigeria. “Dr Smith Mayers” said he would send me the keys after I wired money to his bank account. Victorian police confirmed he is a fraudster.
Parisians who rent rooms in family homes happily accept cash when you arrive. They also let you wash clothes in their laundry, and use their kitchen to make coffee and snacks, which saves money.
French coffee and hot chocolate are delicious, but expensive. I paid $16 for two cups of brown muck masquerading as “chocolat chaud” in a central Paris café. Best to avoid cafes despite the romantic notion, fuelled by the movies, of reading a book while sipping wine or coffee. It looks cool but will burn a hole in your wallet.
Instead, take a thermos of tea or coffee, which you can prepare in the kitchen.
Tap water is safe to drink in Paris, so carry a plastic bottle to re-fill from the many fountains in the city. And ask for “l’eau ordinaire” (tap water) if in a café. Most waiters will try to sting you $8 for a bottle of water available in a supermarket for less than a dollar.
The recession has forced restaurants to lower their prices. Paris has thousands of good restaurants and all display their menus on the street, so window shop to your heart’s content when selecting where to eat. Lunches tend to be large, especially in winter. I found I only needed a snack most evenings after a big lunch. Baguettes cost about $2 from most bakeries and make an ideal snack.
Most restaurants offer a prix fixee as part of their menu – that’s a set price for two or three courses. I had superb lunches in a Michelin-starred restaurant named Les Terrines de Gerard Vie at 97 rue Cherche-Midi in the sixth arrondissement. It cost $48 for three courses, and included a glass of wine. The food was so good I kept the menu as a souvenir and returned the next day.
My first lunch consisted of a sampling of terrines with crusty baguette and creamy butter, followed by a selection of jambon (a chewy dried ham) and cheese. The waiter carved the ham from a leg in the centre of the restaurant. I was full by the time the main course arrived: blanquette de veau (veal stew with carrots, onions and potatoes), washed down with a glass of red from the Corbieres region.
I needed to take a long walk to digest that wonderful meal. I waddled rather than walked.
Paris is a city for walking. Taxis are expensive and get trapped in traffic while the meter keeps ticking. Better to use the underground rail system, the Metro, because it is cheap and free maps are available at any station. Buy a “carnet de dix” – a book of 10 Metro tickets – for $24. Individual tickets are $3.20 so buying in bulk saves $8 each time. One Metro ticket will take you anywhere in Paris – no zoning system of varying prices as in other cities.
Take a sturdy pair of boots and see Paris by foot. Buy a copy of Paris Pratique ($10), a paperback book of maps available at any newspaper kiosk. Apart from the main boulevards with iconic names like St Michel and Haussmann, Paris is a maze of small streets that fan out like spokes from a wheel, often merging into lanes and squares. Streets are known to break, assume another name, and re-join under the original title.
You will need a map in Paris even if your French is good enough to ask directions. Generally I found my attempts to speak French rewarded by small acts of generosity. One old man took my arm and guided me to my destination, seemingly glad to help a lost foreigner.
Paris appears chaotic. It is divided into areas, or arrondissements. These are numbered from one to 21. Do not expect a grid pattern like in Adelaide or most American cities. Arrondissements are sequenced in a spiral shape, like the shell of a snail, with number one at the centre of the city.
And yes, you can eat snails, or escargot, in Paris. But expect to pay at least $2.50 each, or $30 a dozen. They are smothered in garlic and a bright green sauce made of parsley and butter. If you must eat escargot, try them in one of the regional cities serviced by France’s fast rail system. They will be cheaper and fresher.
I took the train to Epernay, the centre of the champagne region. The 100km journey flashed by in about 95 minutes, and cost $40 return. In Epernay I walked the Avenue de Champagne, where all of the main bubbly houses display their wares. It is said to be the most expensive piece of real estate in the world because of the billions of dollars worth of champagne in the cellars, or caves, under the houses.
Most of the prestige-name champagne houses offer tastings: With the basic option for $24 you get to taste two wines. A more expensive option, which costs $50, includes a taste of two vintage champagnes plus a tour of the caves below. Do not arrive at noon because everything will be closed until 2pm. Lunch is a ritual, even a religion. I worshipped with excellent escargot at $18 a dozen, washed down with bubbly.
If tasting at the prestige-name champagne houses seems expensive, visit the champagne bar in rue Gambetta, a 10-minute walk from the railway station. They stock champagne from 43 of the lesser-known houses, and charge $6 to $10 a taste. Plus you can buy from their cellar. I paid $34 for a bottle of 2000-vintage champagne that would cost at least treble that price in Australia.
Winter is the best time to visit Paris because airfares are lower, meals are larger and heartier, and fewer tourists crowd the streets of the popular spots like Notre Dame cathedral or the major museums.
Paris can be very crowded in spring and summer. If you do travel then, and want to enjoy several museums, consider a pass for two, three or five days. Details are available on the http://www.discoverfrance.net/ web site. The pass means you skip the frequently long queues and enter through a special door.
I planned to visit the Musee d’Orsay, a magnificent building that stretches along the Seine river opposite the Tuileries gardens. But the entrance queue snaked for at least a kilometre, meaning I faced a wait of at least an hour. Most museums are closed on Tuesdays, apart from the Musee d’Orsay and the Rodin Muesum. Best to plan something apart from museums on a Tuesday.
Notre Dame cathedral is a must see. All churches are free to enter. Notre Dame has vespers at 5.45pm, and you can usually hear the magnificent organ and choir perform at that time each evening.
One of my favourite places is the cemetery named after Pere Lachaise (1624-1709), confessor to King Louis XIV. Take the Metro to Gambetta and cross the road to the cemetery.
The great Irish poet and playwright, Oscar Wilde, is buried in Pere Lachaise. The sculptor Jacob Epstein designed the grave, and it has become a tourist attraction. Many visitors rouge their lips and kiss the grave. Oscar would have appreciated the attention: His grave is covered in kisses and flowers.
The nearby grave of the great French novelist, Marcel Proust, is more sedate: a black granite slab.
My favourite is the grave of journalist Victor Noir, a famed womaniser. His memorial consists of a full-size brass sculpture of the writer, with the buttons of his flies open. Women who want to conceive are said to rub this part of his anatomy. This area of the sculpture is well worn.
You will need a map to explore the cemetery. They are sold at the entrance for $4. The cemetery is like the rest of Paris, full of irregular streets and magnificent architecture. But unlike Paris, the cemetery is free.
Stephen Quinn teaches journalism at Deakin University. He paid $2,160 for an economy class flight to Paris with Malaysian Airlines, via Kuala Lumpur.
* Published in The Age and the SMH, 14 March 2009