GoNOMAD in Paris with Kids

Some symbols are worth getting a closer view. GoNOMAD in Paris:
Towers, Churches and Art From a Younger Point of View By Lauryn Axelrod
Paris in the summer is an entirely different city from Paris at any other time. The parks are filled with sunbathers and their wine bottles, the cafes and restaurants overflow onto the streets, and the banks of the Seine are closed to traffic: only rollerskaters, bikers and beachgoers are allowed. True, it’s more crowded with tourists, but it’s also more fun. So, we hopped the Eurostar from London and, in three hours, we were wandering the streets of the Latin Quarter. To our surprise, my husband, Chris, was waiting when we arrived, ready to enjoy the Paris summer, too!

For Josh, seeing his father for a few days was great, but Paris was a dream come true. He had been studying French in school for years and was anxious to see the sights he had only read about: The Louvre, the Pompidou, Notre Dame, Sacre Coeur, and of course, the Eiffel Tower. Moreover, his 12th birthday was in two days, and he wanted to spend it in the City of Light, especially on top of it.

Paris High

Josh had wanted to celebrate his birthday at the Eiffel Tower. Not just below it, gazing up at the intricate metal structure, but on top of it. So, we arranged to have his birthday dinner at Altitude 95, the restaurant on the first floor of the Tower. Designed like an old fashioned airship – all girders and glass – Altitude 95 offers outstanding views from all sides, and delicious, although not cheap, food.

In addition to dining at 95 meters above sea level (hence the name), reserving a table for lunch or dinner guarantees you speedy access to the upper levels of the tower by special elevator. No waiting in endless lines. So, after being wished Happy Birthday in French and blowing out the candle on his real French Chocolate Mousse, Josh lead the way as we headed up to the next levels for views of the city at sunset.

It was spectacular. It had been years since I had bothered with the Eiffel Tower. Twelve years, in fact. The last time Chris and I were here was before we were married, and we rollerskated to the observation decks one night. This was an encore; now we would be there with our son.

From the second floor, the view was stunning. Paris really is a city of lights at night: twinkling and reflecting in the waters of the Seine. Afterwards, we lay on the grass between the tower and Les Invalides and watched as the illuminated monolith lit up the Paris night against a clear, dark blue sky. Maybe we didn’t have our skates with us this time, but we did have Josh to share it with.

Earlier in the day, we had headed to the other high point in Paris: Montmartre. Climbing the steps to Sacre Coeur was exhausting, but worth it. The view extended for miles. We wandered through the narrow, picturesque streets, eating lunch in small café, watching the portrait artists in the square and seeking out historic spots like the windmills that once ground the grain and pressed the wine from the fields and vineyards that covered the hill a century ago. Again, I hadn’t seen the narrow streets of Montmartre in years, so I was able to rediscover a part of the city I had once loved.

Art for Art’s Sake

No visit to Paris is complete without a little art. We planned an entire day around the Louvre and the Pompidou, even though you could spend a week in each museum alone. We started early in the morning at the Louvre. With our Paris Museum Cards, we were able to skip the ticket lines and cruise right in to the gallery of our choice.

As it was early, we decided to head straight to the Mona Lisa, hoping to get up close and personal before the crowds arrived. It was a smart choice. Not only was Josh able to gaze in La Jaconda’s mysterious face for several minutes unobstructed, but it was the closest I had ever gotten to her, too.

Josh made several astute observations, not the least of which was the appearance of what seemed like another person’s arm in the left hand corner of the painting. Perhaps that is why she is smiling?

A stroll through the Italian Renaissance, Dutch Masters and a few other galleries took us to the Victory of Samothrace, impressive in her vaulted chamber, and finally to the Venus De Milo.

Josh was a little dumbfounded: why is this unarmed woman so famous? Good question, actually. Considering the number of other statues of disembodied women around, what makes this one so special? Perhaps, like the Mona Lisa, it is the mystery. Who was this naked woman and what did she hold in her now missing hands?

We left the Louvre and headed toward the Beaubourg area and the Centre Georges Pompidou, the futuristic glass and steel modern art museum. Before diving into the world of Cezanne and Picasso, we stopped to grab a sandwich to eat beside the playful Stravinsky Fountain next to the museum.

The colorful, fantastical shapes of the fountain were twirling and spraying and the sense of humor in the piece appealed to Josh more than the staid walls of the Louvre had. It set the tone for what was to come. Inside the Pompidou, he would find many other things that would make him laugh and wonder.

We spent several hours wandering the permanent collections and watching videos. Josh was particularly taken with “Der Lauf Der Dinge,” a kinetic sculpture video by two German artists in which objects roll, fly, fizzle and burn in a long, hilarious cause-and-effect sequence.

In fact, every kid in the museum was glued to the screen for that one. Josh was also interested in several installation pieces and the work of Mondrian. At one point, inspired by the Kandinskys, Josh pulled out his sketchbook and colored pens and began a masterpiece of his own.

I was thrilled. While the Louvre had its moments – and mysteries –, the Pompidou had captured his imagination. A budding artist and modern art appreciator was born!

For Whom The Bell Tolls

While I can go without the hallowed halls of cathedrals and shrines, Chris likes churches. Chris also likes history, in particular the French Revolution. So, we made a day of churches and rolling heads, beginning on the Ile de la Cite.

We opted against climbing the towers of Notre Dame, as the line was extremely long, and instead headed to the Palais de Justice, behind which stands the tiny, and often overlooked, Sainte Chapelle. If you like colored light, there is no better place to indulge than in Sainte Chapelle. The entire second story chapel is made of 50 foot, floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall, stained glass windows, most of which are original to the 13th Century. When the sun shines, it’s like being inside a kaleidoscope.

Next door to Sainte Chapelle is the Conciergerie, a medieval fortress that houses the cells in which Marie Antoinette and more than 4,000 other doomed leaders and paupers were held before their executions by guillotine during the Terror. A video explained the entire process of arrest, jury, condemnation, imprisonment and finally, preparation for transportation to the guillotine.

There is also an impressive exhibition on Robespierre, one of the main perpetrators of the whole ordeal, who was also imprisoned in the Conciergerie. Josh was fascinated and we spent a good deal of time unravelling the complexities of the French Revolution for him.

We had lunch in the Marais, the old Jewish quarter of Paris, where a different kind of history had taken place. It was wonderful to see the quarter again filled with Jews – and Israeli falafel stands, Jewish delis, and even Jewish schools – after the expulsion of its citizens in WWII.

Finally, we ended the day on the Champs Elysees. After climbing to the top of the Arc de Triomphe, we walked down the famous boulevard. No invading armies march down this street now, just tourists. But in a few days the boulevard would remember all France’s victories and losses when the Bastille Day parades and fireworks would light up the city of lights again.

When The Sun Shines

When the sun shines in Paris, Parisians head to the parks. We were no different. The Jardin du Luxembourg was near our hotel and proved a convenient place to spend a sunny afternoon and warm evening. Our friends Cristo, Rebecca and their daughters also live near the gardens and we agreed to meet for a picnic amidst the flowers and sailboats on Sunday.

I shopped for provisions at the weekly organic market on Boulevard Raspail and, loaded down with baguettes, cheeses, meats, vegetables, fruits and several bottles of wine, we joined the other sun-starved Parisians on the lawns (the only place in the park where you can walk on the grass!).

Families gathered, couples cavorted, old men played Boules, children ran and laughed and played. It was as if everyone had cast off their normal Parisian sullenness and become lighthearted for a few hours. Elsewhere in Paris, streets were closed to cars so that Parisians could explore on skates or bikes. Everyone, it seemed, had taken the day off to relax and enjoy Paris’s charms beyond the cultural sights and stores.

For us, it was a much-needed break from the crowds. We dined and drank and caught up with old friends, while Josh, Juliette and Louise watched the marionettes perform and played among the tree-shaded walkways. We lost track of time entirely. Until the police blew the whistle at nine o’clock, signaling the closing of the gates, we had almost forgotten there was more to Paris than this.

Underground Paris
On our last day in Paris, it was raining, so we decided tohead underground. The Catacombes of Paris are one of the grimmer sights in a city known for its beauty. Miles of underground tunnels and caves run the length of the city. Once used by smugglers and resistance fighters, they now house the bones of 6 million denizens of Paris’ graveyards.

Due to overcrowding in the 1700’s, the bodies of the dead in Paris’ cemeteries were exhumed and moved to this underground mausoleum. Each cavern houses thousands of skeletons, artfully arranged in layers, with patterns made from heads and femur bones.

The new cemeteries are labeled, and there are even elaborate inscriptions, poems and shrines for paying homage to the long departed in this “Empire of the Dead.” It is morbid, but like all else in Paris, it is lovely, too. Even skeletons in Paris are beautiful.

We’ll Always Have Paris

Again, five days isn’t time enough to do justice to a city as magnificent as Paris. We never managed to go shopping, see any of the smaller art museums like the Rodin Museum, Musee Picasso, or the Musee D’Orsay, or even rent rollerblades and skate along the Seine.

But, we did manage to experience some of the life of Paris: wandering the streets of the Latin Quarter, thumbing through the books at the Bouquinistes stalls, picnicking in the park with friends, shopping in a neighborhood market, drinking coffee in a café in Montmartre, and eating crepes in Montparnasse.

More importantly, Josh finally got to experience the city he had only daydreamed about in French class. I knew this would be a birthday he would never forget. And someday, he would be back.

Getting There

Visit the flights page on GoNOMAD.com for discount flights to Paris.

Where to Eat

· Altitude 95
First Floor, Eiffel Tower
More for the ambience than the overpriced food, but the Seafood Platter is worth the ride. Mounds of snails, shrimp, fresh oysters! Reserve early at +33-1-45-55-20-04.

· Le Polidor
41, Rue Monsieur-le-Prince
A classic French bistro off Boulevard St. Michel with long checkered cloth-covered tables and solid, affordable bistro food. Check out the paintings on the walls by local artists who have cherished this restaurant since 1845. Indulge in the homemade desserts!

· Nomads
45, rue Descartes
Terrific, inexpensive couscous and other North African specialties on the colorful Rue Descartes in the Quartier Moufftard.

· L’as Du Fallafel
Rue des Rosiers
In the Marais, this rowdy, popular Israeli falafel joint is the tastiest one in town!

What To Do

If you plan to visit any museums or sites, buy a Carte Musee, which gives you free admission (and no lines!) to more than 20 museums and exhibits in Paris. Children get in free to most sites anyway, but with the card, adults can escort them through! The Carte Musee can only be purchased in advance. Buy it at Rail Europe..

The walled city of Carcassonne in southern France

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