A STROLL THROUGH PARIS

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If you’ve only got a few days in Paris, you’d have a coronary trying to fit in all the ‘must-see’ sights and landmarks. Personally, I think the best way to see Paris is to stroll it – you can’t get lost and even if you do, there’s something beautiful to see around every corner. If you’ve already seen all the Parisian sights, take this as an opportunity to simply amble round what must be the best walking city in the world, sans pressure to tick off any obligatory cultural must-sees. 

We stayed in a tiny sun-dappled attic-floor Airbnb with views of the back of the Sacré-Cœur, and spent most of the time admiring the view from the bed and occasionally popping down the six storeys (most traditional Parisian apartments don’t have an elevator) to our nearest Carrefour for delicious $2 pate and brie.

When the guilt of the laziness got too much we’d stumble out after our third croissant and just ..walk. We were just below Montmarte so it made sense for us to start there. We looked for the narrow, lamplit staircases that lead up to the ‘bee-hive’ basilica and tiny bohemian Montmartre with its terrible souvenir shops and spectacular views of the Paris skyline. From here we headed directly south to the beautiful Jardins du Palais Royal with its distinctive black and white pillar installation, and then continued south to the museum of all museums – the Louvre. Whether you choose to go in or not depends on how tight for time you are, but I find the striking modern architecture of the museum’s facade against the surrounding classical palaces just as incredible as anything inside.

From the Louvre we took a meandering river-front walk past the Pont Neuf and the antiquarian bookstalls (bouquinistes) selling used and unique books with their delicate, sun-bleached pages and protective plastic. Here you’ll get the best view of the very heart of Paris – Île de la Cité. From up high you can see the island and its characteristic pointy tip surrounded by the glittering Seine, without the throngs of crowds and souvenir shops. Île de la Cité is popular for a reason – as well as being where it all started (Paris sprung up here originally as a Roman fortress), it’s also home to one of the most spectacular examples of gothic architecture in the world – Notre Dame Cathedral.

From here we headed north to the bohemian and charming Marais district. Here you’ll find ivy-adorned bistros with the classic wicker chairs and tiny round tables that are just big enough to fit two café-au-laits and a croque monsieur. From Marais you can return south into the less crowded (and I’d say more charming) of the two islands this side of the Seine – Île Saint-Louis. With its medieval alleyways and traditional boulangeries and cafes, Saint-Louis feels more untainted than its more glamorous neighbour, and has a village-like pace of its own that makes it seem somehow cut off from the rest of Paris. On Point de la Tournelle is where I found the best view of the spidery gothic buttresses of of Notre Dame Cathedral.

The remarkable thing about areas of Paris like Île Saint-Louis is that you can realistically imagine that you’ve stumbled onto the stage-set of a movie – a small béreted boy shouts bonjour as he scuttles by on his bicycle, a handsome student reads (or poses with) a leather-backed edition of the Les Fleurs du Mal, and an elegantly dressed couple carrying paper bags of baguettes opens the huge wooden door to their Haussmann apartment..but fortunately this isn’t the only side of Paris. Paris is not just elegant boulevards and gilded buildings, and it’s precisely this uncompromising realism of a sprawling, wizened city with a rich and turbulent history that makes Paris so intriguing. The sometimes relentless grey weather, ubiquitous graffiti and famously rude service that can bring on the so-called ‘Paris Syndrome’ is what makes Paris real and for that reason, sexy – like a modern-day Godard rather than a listless romcom. A description of Paris’ ultimate symbol – the Eiffel Tower – as looking like ‘iron lace’ seems apt as a description of Paris in general.

From Île Saint-Louis we walked through Saint-Germain-de-prés to reach the inner city oasis that is the Jardins du Luxembourg. We crossed the bridge over to the heart of Paris’ literary Left Bank, where authors and artists once lived and frequented the cafes. Still existing are the famous Café de Flore – a favourite with Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus and Picasso, and the Deux Magots, preferred by Hemmingway, Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. Though it’s not the original bookstore frequented by authors like James Joyce, Shakespeare and Co. (1951) is a beautiful oak labyrinth of a bookstore selling antiquarian, used and new books and is a free reading library open to anyone. It also houses aspiring writers in exchange for help around the shop; since it’s opening, more than 30,000 people have slept in beds tucked in between its maze of bookshelves.

From here, by now evening, we strolled down the tree-lined boulevards of Saint-Germain-de-prés and searched for dinner down the crooked cobblestone corridors of the Latin Quarter.  Evening is the perfect time to visit Saint-Germain, as it’s harder to see the glaring souvenir shops by lamplight.

Obviously this is an ambitious stroll to do in just a day, but if that’s all the time you have or you’re up for the challenge, it’s a half-hour post-dinner stroll to the beginning of the Champ de Mars where you can see the Eiffel Tower at night, when it lights up and sparkles dreamily over Paris for five minutes, every hour on the hour.

Chamonix & the dolomites budget road-trip

The DolomitesIcicles on a wood cabinGirl in Chamonix snowboardingTraditional restaurant in the DolomitesGirl Husky sledding in ChamonixChamonix StationCervinodol5dol16dol21clockchHuskies in snow

Crashing chalets and not skiing –

If you’re not there solely for the skiing or snowboarding, Chamonix can, believe it or not, be done on a budget. All you have to do is be bit cheeky about it. Our friend was in Chamonix for work and overheard some people talking about renovating their chalet and asked if they wanted him to overlook the work while they were away. They agreed and he got to stay in their spectacular two-storey chalet with mountain views (and hot tub) for free for a month. Naturally, we jumped at the chance to visit for a few days. It sounds purely like a stroke of good luck, but a lot of chalet owners who don’t rent are busy people who are only too happy to have somebody responsible to look after their holiday homes or pets while they’re away. This is one website that helps you find those people . Otherwise, the Hotel Cretes Blanche and Labrador have some pretty good rates.

As well as not having a massive budget, me and J are also devoid of any snow-sport skills whatsoever. Chamonix was a bad choice, you say? I’ll admit that trying to learn to snowboard without an instructor was difficult, and we spent more time on our butts than we did standing up, but it was most definitely fun, and we did get very slightly better by the end of the day. The good thing about renting gear and a pass for the day is that even of you have absolutely no idea what you’re doing, you get the breathtaking views of the Mont Blanc massif and Chamonix Valley from the slopes and ski-lifts as pretty compensation. The next day, slightly defeated from the snow-boarding, we rented some snow-shoes (much cheaper than most other snow activities) and did the Les Houches trail past snowy mountains, icicle-adorned wood-huts and pine-tree forests.

The next day we got on the scenic bus towards Valtournenche/Breuil-Cervinia where we stayed with an Italian relative. Having loved our leisurely walk through the pine-forest in Chamonix, we rented out snow-shoes again and started the walk from Breuil-Cervinia base to Plan Maison. As it happened, this turned out to be anything but leisurely. Since snow-shoes necessarily have a massive surface area and pick up snow as you walk, going up-hill can be incredibly strenuous. Going straight up the steep, fresh ski-slopes of the Matterhorn with the sound of distant avalanches crashing in the background was one of the hardest, most exhilarating experiences of my life. By the time we got to the top we were in t-shirts and singing into the eerily echo-less snow to keep us going. One of the things I remember most clearly were the fresh snow crystals at the summit of our walk reflecting a stunning carpet of tiny rainbows which I determined to (totally unsuccessfully) take hundreds of pictures of.  We finally reached Plan Maison where, whether because of all-consuming hunger or just good cooking, I had one of the best pastas of my whole life. We ended the day by taking the spectacular Cable Car to Plateau Rosa, home of Il Bar del Rifugio guide del Cervino, a cosy  Alpine Bar at 3480m altitude.

From Valtournenche we took the long train/bus journey to the Dolomites (I’d recommend staying in Milan or Verona for a couple of days if you’re going to do this). We went in the off-season (early April to be exact, the tail-end of Ski season) when everything is cheaper – accommodation, car rental, ski-passes, husky-sledding etc. While many of the hotels and restaurants are closed, and some of the trails are closed off due to snow, you can enjoy the dramatic views of the towering rocky peaks on the trails that are open without the crowds. If you’re travelling as a couple, it can be cosy to visit at this very quiet and snowy time of year.

Things to do in Chamonix/Dolomites other than skiing/snowboarding:

  • Snow shoeing
  • Husky Sledding
  • Hike the many trails/take Cable cars in the Dolomites
  • Rent a car and drive the Great Dolomite Road (anywhere from Verona to Cortina d’Ampezzo via the Lakes) There isn’t really one single route which is fine because the scenery in the area is generally stunning.
  • Eat your body weight in Speck (the local cured ham) and Spetzle

Cheap Eats:

  • Chamonix – Poco Loco . Great burgers and cheap beer pitchers (for the area) if you’re in a group.
  • Breuil- Cervinia – La Grotta. OK this one is not exactly cheap but the pizzas are amazing and huge and definitely shareable.
  • Dolomites – Malga Sella Alm. Home-style German food in an Alpine hut with lovely views of the Val Gardena Dolomites.