We landed in Paris at 2:55pm. The airport was basically empty to major city airport standards and it was easier than expected to grab a cab. The driver laughed when asked if he took credit card once we were on the road. We weren’t sure if that was an "of course" laugh or a sarcastic "no" laugh, however, when he dropped us off at our accommodation Hotel Pax Opera it turned out that his laughter was a "no". He didn’t take credit but did take overpaying American cash. We hadn’t had a chance to exchange currency to Euros and that suddenly became a priority. The driver shattered the last remaining handle on our overweight luggage piece when moving it from the trunk making it extremely hard to maneuver over the bumpy cobblestone streets and into our old gothic styled hotel. We checked in, quickly realizing the room was a lot smaller, older and more rustic than images online suggested but it would work fine as a home base. It was rather odd though... Everything leaned, even the furniture. The shower door wouldn’t open without hitting the sink and there was no room for luggage but the city was what we came for, not the room. It did have a cute window that opened to a romantic brownstone city block view. Straight down, no railing, full body window that opened about waist high. Great picture window, just don’t lean too far to look. After the taxi experience we decided to set out and find a money exchange. We came across an entire row of exchange shops, picked one and exchanged USD to EUR (minus fees of course). With the temperature dropping quickly we stopped into a little heated trattoria along the bustling Montmarte street to enjoy dinner and people watch. The place would have been perfect for a glass of wine but we were still kicking ourselves for last night’s outing in LA with Ronda. Never drinking whiskey again. We didn’t even take advantage of the free drinks in first class after bidding and winning the upgrade (totally recommend Norwegian Airlines by the way). After dinner we practically ran back to the hotel as the temperature had plunged into the thirties while we were out. We took a hot shower to thaw out, set up airport transfer for the next day and called it an early night.
Up at 4 am writing since we’re off schedule. Laying in bed wide awake, the outside world silent, we wait for a socially acceptable time to slip through the creaky door, venture into the city of light and watch the sunrise at the Eiffel Tower. The smell of fresh baked bread assaulted our senses as we stepped into The Shining-esque carpeted hallway, followed it down the first flight of circular stairs to the shaky two person lift and rode it down to the lobby. The receptionist was nice and offered us free breakfast. We smiled, thanked him and took him up on some pastries before jumped in an Uber. After a short drive our extremely silent driver put us out by the merry-go-round below the tower. It was a little creepy alone in the dark so we kept to the lit roadsides and wandered. After ten minutes of walking, we were cold. Thankfully we came across an open cafe with the signature red awning (Castel Cafe) and grabbed a two seater inside by the window. We warmed up in the golden, dim light with the largest cappuccinos I’ve ever seen and pain au chocolate. I could definitely get used to chocolate for breakfast. We chatted until the first signs of light tried to peek through the sleepy sky then took to the streets again. The sun never made it through the dense white clouds but we were all alone and the day had started. There were no other people in sight aside from the handful of crazy joggers in short shorts. Seriously short shorts and yes, it was 30 degrees out. We took photos at the Eiffel tower, the tallest structure in Paris, and walked the park and the Siene river route to the world's larges art museum, the Louvre. It was a cold walk but with scenic points along the river like gold capped bridges and buildings, docked boats with restaurants/bars and trees growing atop. The cold wind whipped along the river banks and we laughed at the tropical decor atop the boats as we shivered.
We made it to the Louvre and got in a short line just before the doors opened at 9am. We wandered the halls almost entirely alone. Early civilization crafts, Greek sculptures, Egyptian sarcophagi and Renaissance paintings were all incredible. We saw the Mona Lisa, Venus, Nike, things we studied in college, pieces of art entire religions were based off of and much more. We spent a few hours inspired by art and architecture before making our way out passed an apothecary styled perfumery and to the catacombs for a two hour walk in a dark underground crypt. We gathered our audio guides and descended the seemingly never ending circular stairway into the depths of the city. We traveled through underground tunnels leading into the Ossuary where piles of bones were artfully arranged. Bones from over six million people had been buried just below the bustling city streets throughout the years. The history of the Paris Catacombs starts in the late eighteenth century, when major public health problems tied to the city’s cemeteries led to a decision to transfer their contents to an underground site. Paris authorities chose an easily accessible site that was, at the time, located outside the capital: the former Tombe-Issoire quarries under the plain of Montrouge. In operation since at least the fifteenth century and then abandoned, these quarries were a small part of the labyrinth that extended under the city over approximately 800 hectares. Preparation of the site and the organization of bone transfers were entrusted to Charles Axel Guillaumot, an inspector at the Department of General Quarry Inspection. The mission of this department, which had been founded on April 4, 1777, by Louis XVI, was to consolidate the abandoned quarries following major collapses of the ground under Paris in the mid-eighteenth century. The first evacuations were made from 1785 to 1787 and concerned the largest cemetery in Paris, the Saints-Innocents cemetery, which had been closed in 1780 after consecutive use for nearly ten centuries. The tombs, common graves and charnel house were emptied of their bones, which were transported at night to avoid hostile reactions from the Parisian population and the Church. The bones were dumped into two quarry wells and then distributed and piled into the galleries by the quarry workers. Transfers continued after the French Revolution until 1814, with the suppression of parochial cemeteries, such as Saint-Eustache, Saint-Nicolas-des-Champs and the Bernardins Convent, in the center of Paris. They were begun again in 1840, during urban renovation by Louis-Philippe and the Haussmannian reconfiguration of the city from 1859 to 1860. The site was consecrated as the “Paris Municipal Ossuary” on April 7, 1786, and, from that time forward, took on the mythical name of “Catacombs”, in reference to the Roman catacombs, which had fascinated the public since their discovery. Starting in 1809, the Catacombs were opened to the public by appointment. In the 19th century the catacombs became a novelty place for holding private events and concerts. In 2004 police discovered a fully equipped movie theater in one of the caverns. It contained seats, projector, film reels, tables, fully stocked bar and restaurant. In 2017 thieves broke into a cellar in the catacombs and stole more than 250,000 Euros of wine. The paths that branch off once underground are endless and we just saw a portion of what seems like veins below the city. The experience was surreal.
We ventured back to the hotel to shower, nap and get ready for dinner at Nicloas Flamel’s old house. Nicolas Flamel was a French scribe, manuscript seller and an alchemist rumored to have turned lead into gold and discovered the philosopher’s stone. The stone is said to have held the secret of immortality. Harry Potter briefly paid homage to him as did The Da Vinci Code as well as other movies and books. His house is the oldest stone home in the city (built in 1407)and is now a restaurant with a contemporary French cuisine(Auberge Nicolas Flamel) that still totes his name. Our ride dropped us in a dark one way alley where a barely marked side door lead us into an old stone room with exposed beams and candle lit tables. Once seated, our garçon took our wine order. A local Cote du Rhone and we decided to do the tasting menu. First course was a small trio plate featuring a squid ink colored quinoa crisp with goat cheese, a liquid foi gras whip in the middle cup and a semi circle miniature chicken cordon bleu bite. Second starter was langoustine ravioli with potato creme and sweet potato paste. Fish course was pan seared perch on forbidden black rice topped with spinach (a hot pink cauliflower ) and surrounded with a lemon creme fraiche. Boef meal was filet in brown sauce with fried onions but we were both too full to finish it… but not too full for the chocolate sphere the garçon poured hot chocolate sauce over to melt and reveal vanilla ice cream with pears and candied almonds. It was sinful and quite the alchemical adventure for the foodie. We left late, overly full and extremely tired.
Next stop, Barcelona.
photos /// Keith Ketchum Photography