Versailles Bike Tour
Highly recommended! We met at the tour office in Paris and took the train together to Versailles. We picked up bikes and spent an hour at a market to eat crepes and buy picnic supplies for later. Our guide was fun and informative and it was a nice, relaxing day, despite getting left behind at one point. Book at Fat Tire Tours.
If you’re Mormon, or interested in Mormons, there’s a new temple near Versailles. It’s about a 20-minute walk from the Versailles palace (5 minutes by car) in Le Chesnay. The public open house is from April 22 – May 13, 2017, which was after our trip. But we went ahead and joined the line for VIP tours, despite being of only average importance. It’s a beautiful place, inside and out.
Arc de Triomphe and Champs-Élysées
This is another good evening area after everything else is closed. We climbed the Arc de Triomphe and then walked down the Champs-Élysées boulevard to Place de la Concorde, where the guillotines used to do their thing.
We landed at Charles de Gaulle airport at 11am. It took about 30 minutes to get through passport control and to the RER train station connected to the airport. €10 to take the B line into Paris, which includes any connections you need to make via métro.
I waited too long to buy advance tickets to ascend the Eiffel Tower — you need to get them 2+ months ahead of time. But you can generally still get late tickets through tour operators, so we used Fat Tire Tours. Other than having some obnoxious parents with impressionable kids on the tour, it was great. Even with the “skip the line” tour, you spend some time at security checks and waiting for elevators. But the views are worth it.
This was my first time trying Airbnb. I used to think you had to hang out with another family and actually interact with other human beings, but there are plenty of listings where you rent the whole house or apartment and have it to yourself. My first attempt didn’t work out — the punk canceled on me a few days before our trip. But I quickly booked another and it was great. We had a two-room apartment near Père Lachaise and loved it. We had more space and privacy, and we saved at least $50 a night over a hotel.
A lot of the touristy places close around 6pm, but there are several outdoor spots that are accessible at all hours. We picked a park near the apartment, the Notre Dame cathedral area, and the Pompidou Center, which usually has a good variety of street performers.
I’ve told you about my music problem, right? I grew up in small-town Idaho where the only radio stations were hard rock, Top 40, pop country, and painfully easy listening. But we had a Rainbow Records store. In the age of Spotify and YouTube it feels so foreign now that I would wait for the weekly shipment and buy albums that looked interesting without so much as a listen. I also pilfered my friends’ collections and wore out my dual cassette recorder making copies.
Anyway, thus began a lifelong pursuit of music that pleases me. In the early 90s I went to Paris, France, as a Mormon missionary, which piqued my interest in French music. I’ve collected a bunch over the years and that’s what this post is about. I’ve noticed that I have different standards for foreign-language music – some styles that I wouldn’t listen to in English become interesting to me just because it’s in a different tongue. Even so, the search has been fairly difficult because most sites just highlight the popular stuff I tend to not love.
Here are a few of the gems I’ve found –
Let’s kick this off with one of my all-time favorites. If you don’t at least tap your foot to this you can skip the rest of the list.
Champs-Elysées by Joe Dassin:
Since “Classic Rock” stations now play the music I grew up with, I’ll define French Classics as music that predates my arrival in France, 1992.
Francis Cabrel was the first French musician I discovered in my first city, Compiègne. A French missionary asked me to learn “Je l’aime à mourir” (“I Love Her to Death”) on the guitar. He’s a folk and blues artist, along the lines of James Taylor and David Wilcox. He has 20+ albums. If you’re interested, start with the collection 77/87 (Amazon link). Not all of his music has aged well, but some songs are timeless. One of his earliest hits was “Petite Marie” about the woman who became his wife:
Georges Brassens goes way back to the 1950s (he died in 1981). I first fell in love with his melodies when I heard an album of instrumental covers. His accent is great, with a very different “r” than today’s French. He also enjoys dark humor and anarchy. Try “Les copains d’abord” (“Friends first”):
“La Mer” (“The Sea”) by Charles Trénet is just beautiful:
The cover by Jeff Lynne (of ELO) is also fun:
Ok, there are many more to explore here (including Edith Piaf, Jacques Brel, Charles Aznavour), but let’s move on to another category.
My little brother also went to Paris on his mission and sent home a CD from the musical Notre Dame de Paris with lyrics by Luc Plamondon and music by italian Riccardo Cocciante. I listened to this thing non-stop for weeks. Maybe months. He also sent the piano music, which is still a favorite. I don’t know why this musical didn’t take over the world like Les Misérables – I watched the DVD and the modern dance might be part of the reason.
Try “Belle”, which features several of the characters signing about Esmerelda from varied points of view:
I’ll just feature a couple here. Yann Tiersen’s soundtrack to Amélie is fun instrumental music, especially for accordion lovers:
Les Choristes is a great movie with an amazing choral soundtrack.
My son is still haunted by Un monstre à Paris, a fever dream of a movie we watched on Netflix years ago. If I recall correctly, it’s about a cockroach that dreams of being a musician and gets his wish when a lab accident makes him human-sized. Chaos and good music ensue.
These get extra attention simply because this is when I was in France. We didn’t have much opportunity to listen to music, but some songs caught my attention at a store or in someone’s home and I looked them up later.
Powwow – I don’t usually like a cappella music but this album caught my eye because of the bilingual wordplay (Comme Un Guetteur means “like a watchman” but is pronounced similar to “come and get her”).
Try “Allongé sur mon sampan” – the verses are not great, but that makes the chorus all the better.
Three of the four Hill brothers served missions in France (two in the Paris Mission [1992-94 and 1999-2001] and one in the Geneva Mission [2004-06] which includes parts of France). We try to get back when we can, even if it’s just during a layover from somewhere else. Since we occasionally get requests for info on the best sites to see in Paris, I thought I’d publish the following, which started as an email to some friends. Print a 2-page PDF without photos.
Before you go:
Install the free TripAdvisor app on your smartphone, search for Paris, and download it for offline use. This will allow you to view the map, get directions, find nearby restaurants and sights, etc., all without using an international data plan.
Place de la Concorde — This is where Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI were beheaded. Now it’s a large square filled with fountains and an Egyptian obelisk. From here you can see the Eiffel Tower, Hôtel des Invalides, the Champs-Élysées, The Arc de Triomphe, and La Madeleine.
Le Marais & Châtelet-Les Halles — This is one of my favorite parts of Paris. Eat falafels in the Jewish Quarter, watch street performers by Centre Georges Pompidou. Lots of pastries in this area (along with most other areas): pains au chocolat, réligieuses, baguettes, and crêpes.
Hôtel des Invalides — home of Napoleon’s tomb and a military museum.
Rodin Museum — Balzac, The Thinker and a bunch of other naked statues.
Musée d’Orsay — Everything from Impressionism on: van Gogh, Monet, Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec, Manet, Renoir, Rodin, Whistler, etc. My favorite is Cain by a lesser-known artist.
The Louvre — Everything from before Impressionism: da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, Michelangelo’s Slave, Venus de Milo, Egyptian artifacts, etc. I recommend the Stuff You Should Know podcast on the history of the Louvre.
Arc de Triomphe — climb 400 stairs to the top for a great view of the city.
Eiffel Tower — take a Bâteau Mouche (boat on the Seine River) tour from here, spend some time in the park, buy overpriced bottled water, take lots of pictures.
Champs-Élysées — the big road that connects Place de la Concorde to the Arc de Triomphe. Good for people-watching and visiting fancy shops.
Victor Hugo’s home — pretty boring tour, but cool to have been there.
Basilique du Sacre Coeur — large white church on the top of a hill. Fun for street performers, beautiful inside.
Montmartre — near Sacre Coeur are a bunch of Bohemian sites: Picasso’s studio, van Gogh’s apartment, hangouts of famous poets and authors, Place du Tertre where all the aspiring artists (con and otherwise) congregate. Down the hill is the Pigalle area, home to the Moulin Rouge and tons of good music shops.
Versailles — Palace of the Sun King, Louis XIV, crowned and married at the age of four. Tour the gardens on a Sunday afternoon, the only time they run the immense (and expensive to operate) system of fountains, accompanied by Baroque music. The Versailles Treaty was signed in the Hall of Mirrors, ending the First World War.
Sainte-Chapelle — My wife’s second favorite. Incredible stained glass windows that tell the history of the world from Genesis to the Second Coming with the life of Christ in the center. Moses is depicted with horns because of a mistranslation of the Bible in medieval times.
Cathédrale de Notre Dame de Paris — took 200 years to build. Start early to beat the crowds wanting to climb to the top. After the gargoyles, my favorite feature is the depiction over the center door of the Final Judgment with Christ in the center, devils taking people off to His left, and angels taking others off to His right.
Catacombs — bunches of bones (from an estimated 6 million people) unearthed from Parisian cemeteries and arranged in various designs — hearts, doors, walls, etc. — in underground tunnels. There are apparently 200 miles of mine tunnels under Paris — you get to explore a little over a mile in about 45 minutes. If you decide you want more, check out the Cataphiles. Ours was the quickest tour on record, with my wife pulling me through the tunnel maze as quickly as she could run.
Pere Lachaise Cemetery — Its claim to fame is (perhaps to the dismay of the French) the grave of Jim Morrison (of The Doors), which can easily be found by following the graffiti. Among the others buried here are Frederic Chopin and Oscar Wilde. If you like cemeteries, this is one of the best in the world. Recommended listening while you wander around: People Are Strange.
Paris Sewer Tour — I was surprised by how interesting this was. You’re walking above real sewage from the Eiffel Tower area, learning how a city rids itself of waste from a changing and growing population. And you get to imagine yourself in that Thénardier scene from Les Misérables.
Rick Steves’ Paris — Rick Steves
The best travel guide out there. You can skip the lines and fees for guided tours and follow the self-guided tours in this book. The authors provide just the right mix of history, humor, and culture for seasoned travelers and culturephobes alike. This book covers everything from phone cards to museum passes to metro navigation. The appendix includes a brief history of France and some key French phrases. Skim the book before you get there and you’ll find yourself going from cover to cover once you’re in Paris.