Monday, December 17, 2012

How to do Paris on a Budget

Months ago, at the beginning of the European adventure, I didn't think I'd end up making it to Paris. Eurostar tickets were so expensive, as were plane tickets, and I knew that everything actually in Paris would be expensive as well. It didn't seem to be in the cards.

But then I thought about how much my parents and co-workers would kill me if I didn't get to Paris. And I knew that it would let myself down as well. As much as I had doubts in Paris (some have called it a European New York City, and I'm not the Big Apple's biggest fan) I knew that it was place you just have to go. You haven't seen Europe until you've seen Paris. So I was determined to find a way.

After a few Google searches, I found that Megabus UK runs buses to Paris. I know what you're thinking: "I bus from England to Paris? You do know there's a body of water in the way, right? Are you crazy?!" For a while there, I thought I was crazy for considering it. But here's the kicker. The bus from London to Paris only costs £5. How can you say no to five pounds? So I told Libby about, and she was in for this crazy little adventure I'd decided we were taking. By the end of the night we were booked for the overnight Megabus on Saturday December 1st, getting in early Sunday morning, and the overnight bus back on Monday night. When you forget that it involves a nine hour bus ride, it really is the perfect situation. We got two full days in Paris, and only had to pay for accommodation  for one night. We sure know how to do Paris on a budget.

So on Saturday night, we boarded a bus to London to catch our Megabus. When we checked in, we received our seat number which wished us a comfortable journey. Right, Megabus. Who are you kidding? We're not in for a comfortable night. While waiting in line, the girl behind me got my attention. "Do you got to High Point University?" she asked. After a moment of confusion I realized I was wearing my HPU yoga pants. When I answered affirmatively, she explained that her best friend went to High Point, and much to my surprise I actually knew our common acquaintance. It's amazing what a small world this is. As we spoken with Erin and Saya, we found that they were studying in Oxford as well (at the Oxford) and actually lived right down the road from our dorm. We couldn't get over how similar our situations were--they were even taking hte same bus back on Monday.

We were soon on the bus and on our way to Paris! We drove for a few hours until we reached Dover where we had to get off the bus to clear Customs since we were the country. We then had to wait over an hour for the ferry we were taking to Calais. Once on the ferry, we all had to get off the bus. At 2 in the morning. Kill me now. It ended up working out because I was able to get to sleep on the ferry (I'm not great at sleeping in automobiles) and once we'd gotten back on the bus I was already half asleep so I was able to prolong it until we got to Paris. That's not to say it was a restful sleep by any means. I woke up more times than I can count, but I did get some sleep, which was a relief  One of my main worries was that I was going to be walking around Paris all day without any sleep.

So we pulled into Paris at 7am and it was still dark. And freezing cold. We walked to the Metro station, only to find that it was closed. We had a five minute panic session in which we didn't know how we were going to get into the center of Paris if the Metro didn't open for another three hours and then we realized that there was a RER station nearby that was open. We boarded the double-decker train and since our car was empty Libby and I changed out of the clothes we'd been wearing all night. It actually worked out quite well, cause I don't know where else we would have changed.

Still dark when we got off the train, we walked to Notre Dame for the 8:30am Mass. I couldn't rightly say what the message was about, because I don't speak French and I didn't understand most of the service because I'm not Catholic, but it was really cool to worship in such a beautiful and famous church. When we exited Notre Dame the sun had finally come up which was a welcome sight.

 We then went in search of some breakfast. We got crepes and just killed time until our free walking tour started at 11. We wandered around, freezing our toes off and observed an interesting development at the Place Sant Michel fountain. At first I just thought it was a weird fountain because the water that was coming out of it was red. Once I noticed all of the cops wandering about, I realized that perhaps the water wasn't supposed to be red. Apparently someone dyed it red because it was the anniversary of Napolean's coronation, and there was so much blood during his reign. Well I'll tell you one thing--it worked, the water totally looked like blood and was actually quite creepy.

It was finally time for our free tour (tip for anyway travelling in Europe: always look to see if Sandeman's New Europe Tours have a free tour in the city you're travelling to and they are fantastic) and we saw a lot of the Paris sites and got to hear about both the historical aspects and the cultural intricacies. At one point on the tour our tour guide Lauren was telling us about the different scams gypsies try to pull on you in Paris and she suddenly said "Oh look look. See this woman here, she is what you call a ring dropper. First she's going to walk towards that man and--oops she's dropped her ring..." she then preceded to narrate the entire scam. The woman picks up the ring and says to the man "This is your lucky day. I think this ring is yours. It would look great on you, you should give it to your girlfriend etc... trying to get him to take it. Flustered, the man took the ring and began walking away. Suddenly Lauren called to him "Drop the ring. Seriously, just put it down." He looked at her confused. "It's a scam, she's trying to scam you," Lauren replied. He put it down and hurried off. Apparently the game is that after the person walks away with the ring, the woman starts screaming "Thief, thief  he stole my ring!" and then makes the man pay for it. The woman was really pissed and started flipping off our tour guide and cursing at her in French. It certainly was... interesting. And frankly, pretty entertaining.

It was a great tour. We took pictures of Love Lock's Bridge, learned that in French iPod is a masculine noun, saw the Louvre pyramids and just took in Paris. Although it was absolutely freezing out, it was extremely sunny, so at least we got some beautiful photos. Always look on the bright side of life.
After our walking tour we went to the Musee d'Orsay because admission is free the first Sunday of hte month and we got to see tons and tons of Impressionist paintings. The Art History student in me was hard core geeking out. There's nothing better than some Monet and Renoir. It was absolutely amazing. I mean, to have so many masterpieces on one floor of a museum and to be able to see them all for free... speechless.

Once we left the Orsay, we made our way to our hostel, freezing and exhausted. We got ourselves settled and just decided to have dinner at the hostel since it was so cold outside. Libby and I both had Croque Monsieur which was delicious. And as we ate we saw someone we knew and when we got to our dorm room who did we find but Sam and his Awkward Friend, two guys we met on the bus to Paris. It was just crazy we ended up in the same hostel and the same dormitory no less. Crazy coincidences.

The next morning we had breakfast at our hostel before heading out. At every hostel breakfast we've had, there is always toast and jam. In typical French fashion, instead of toast they had baguettes and instead of jam they had a Nutella-like spread. It was pretty much awesome. And the spread tasted exactly the inside of a Kinder Bueno so I'd say my day was off to a pretty great start.

We started Paris day 2 at the Sacre Couer in the district of Montemarte. It was rainy, but not as cold as the day before so an entirely different type of day in Paris. We climbed up the many steps to get to the top if the hill and go in the Sacre Couer and even though it was really overcast, it was really cool seeing Paris from this vantage point. And the Sacre Couer is really beautiful. I actually like it better than Notre Dame because it is different and original. It certainly doesn't look like any other church we've visited on our European adventure.  While at Sacre Couer we did encounter some gypsies trying to pull the bracelet scam on us. Basically what they do is offer you a bracelet (basically just a string) and then once they've put it on our wrist, refuse to let you go until you pay them money. Luckily Caitlin had warned us before we went, so we knew to just ignore them.

After that we were off to the Tour Eiffel. Because I didn't know if I'd ever be back in Paris, we wanted to go up the Eiffel Tower--all the way to the top. It's just one of those things you just have to do while in Paris. We had blocked about three hours for Tour Eiffel because we've heard about the horrendously long lines. Much to our surprise we only had to wait in line for five minutes to get our tickets, and another five to go up the lift. This was most certainly because it was a low visibility day, but I think it was still worth it to go up. Yeah, we would've gotten better views if it had been sunny, and it probably would have been a lot prettier but its not neccesarily about the views for me, but rather the ability to check Eiffel Tower off my travel bucket list. Would I do it again? No, probably not, 12 euros is a lot of money to a student, but it was definitely worth it to do it once. What I love so much about the Eiffel Tower is that when it was built, Paris just wanted to have the tallest structure in the world so they let Gustave Eiffel do whatever he liked, knowing that it would just be torn down in 10 years. Little did they know that it would become the icon for Paris. If you see the Eiffel Tower, you just know it's Paris. No need for word or description.

We obviously finished the Tour Eiffel way faster than we thought, so we took some pictures of the Eiffel Tower from a little further away and made our way to to the Metro station. We were approached by another type of scammer we'd heard about. Where people have a clipboard (though really just a cereal box) with a sheet of paper on it that is a petition in honor of some noble cause like the blind or deaf. They try to get you to sign it and then the paper actually says that you owe them a certain amount of money. We'd heard about them and had been approached by them once or twice but this situation was different. They approached us and asked us if we spoke English. We replied "non" in our best French accent and were on our way. This happened three or four times and I'm entirely sure what they were playing at.

We were off to Champ Elysees to see the Arc de Triomphe. We didn't go up, but we saw it and that's all that matters and while there we actually ran into Erin and Saya from the bus. As we walked up and down Champ Elysees we were on a mission to find the "greatest macaroons in Paris" as deemed by our tour guide Lauren. All we knew is that they were made by Pierre Hermes and that they were through double doors on the left near the end of the street. Real descriptive, Lauren. We had almost given up when I spotted some double doors hiding behind a sign. Victory! And the delicious macaroons were the perfect celebratory dessert.

We then had a big lunch at a restaurant since we didn't know if we'd have time for dinner, and our waiter got a kick out of asking me if I wanted sugar on the pasta. He was referring to the Parmesan cheese and I knew he meant Parmesan cheese but I don't think he knew I knew that he meant Parmesan.  So he kept making the joke and I was caught in this awkward situation in which I just wanted some Parmesan cheese on my pasta but couldn't get him to just give me some. Do I have a face that scream "make fun of me"? Cause things like this seems to happen to me a lot. People must think I'm gullible or something.

After our late lunch, we made our way to Montmarte where our Montmarte District tour began. We hung out in Starbucks until 6pm when the tour was scheduled to start and then we were on our. It was definitly worth the 12 euro we spent on it. At first we were just going to explore Montmarte on our own, but then we realized it would be much more meaningful to do it on a tour and I'm glad we did. We saw and heard stories about the Moulin Rouge and other cabarets, the red light district of Paris, Van Goghs house (cue the geeking out), the place where Pablo Picasso traded his paintings for food (telling the owner "I'll be the most successful artist of my generation"), the last standing windmill of Montmarte, the artists square, Pablo Picasso and Henri Toulouse Lautrec's boarding house and so much more. We also went to the Sacre Couer which was really cool to see at night. The vantage point also allowed us to see the Eiffel Tower all lit up so that was awesome. Seeing the Montmarte District was definitely a highlight of my trip and the tour and what followed was a perfect way to end an amazing two days.
The tour ended at Cafe des Deux Moulins, the cafe where the title character worked in the beautiful French movie Amelie. (I would recommend watching it, it's an amazing movie. It's available on YouTube here.) The writer of Amelie wrote most of the movie there and got it set in his head that the movie needed to be shot there (a lot of the movie takes place in the cafe where Amelie works). He asked the owner, who refused. After all, why should he shut down his business for god knows how long so that a nobody could shoot a movie. Nobody watches French movies anyway (the words of our tour guide, not me). The writer went back every day for 18 months until the owner, sick of seeing him everyday, gave in. And good thing he did. Amelie is the most successful French entertainment export ever created, so it worked in his favor as people come to see the cafe where the ever awkward Amelie worked.

As part of the tour, we got a complimentary glass of wine. (I had white, and it was actually really good. I don't really like wine so I was surprised that I quite enjoyed it.) It was about 8pm when we got the Cafe des Deux Moulins and we got caught up in a conversation with Jager and Angus, two Australian boys travelling around Europe since their year of Uni just ended (it's summer in Australia right now). We talked to them for a good two hours about differences between Australia and American, health care (that was a lively discussion, in which they said jokingly that Americans must be unfeeling since they don't seem to care about their fellow citizens), our time at Uni in England and their travels around Europe. It was a really nice conversation and a lot of fun. They asked us when we were leaving Paris, and when we told them at 11pm that night, they were shocked. "You're leaving in a little over 2 hours and you're just casually drinking a glass of wine with us here?" We laughed and explained that we weren't too concerned about it because we don't have to go through security or anything. We did realize that we should probably get something to eat before hopping on a bus for 9 hours and we all decided to go get crepes at the place that our tour guide called the best place to get crepes in Montmarte. So we got crepes together and they were quite delicious. It;s quite funny- one of the first things we did in Paris was get crepes, and one of the last things we did was get crepes. We sure did come full circle.

At this point it was time to head back to the bus, so we bid Jager and Angus goodbye and got onto the Metro. Me, being me, was afraid that we wouldn't make it back in time and was kinda freaking out, but took us no more than 15 minutes to get to the Port Maillot stop (where the bus was waiting) so we were actually quite early. Well, better safe than sorry. And this meant Libby and I got a seat together. We repeated everything we had to do to get there on the bus, and 9 hours later the sun was rising over London. Saya and Erin had both been pickpocketed in Paris (rotten luck!) and so I loaned them the money needed for the bus back to Oxford, and the four of us rode back to Oxford together.

In the end, it was an absolutely amazing trip that I am so glad I took. I had a great time with Libby and I wouldn't have done Paris with anyone else! And let's be real, we certainly know how to do Paris on a budget.

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