Paris. Most Americans I know either love it or they hate it. I am in the former category. After having flown dozens of trips and laid-over in Paris many nights I have discovered that, like any big city in the world, it has its good and it has its bad. I could write a whole article about that, but this article is about one of the wonderful things about Paris… Christmas.
Known as the City of Lights, Paris becomes the City of Christmas lights around the beginning of December. Festive light displays are around every corner, lighting up everything from small neighborhoods to the grand avenues of the city. This past month, I travelled to Paris a couple of times and spent much of my time there exploring the city and its Christmas delights.
My layover hotel is in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, so naturally I started my walking tour there. Across the Seine River from the Tower is the Trocadero, where a German-style Christmas market was set up. Just like the Christmas markets in the rest of Europe, this one featured small wooden stalls selling food, ornaments, decorations, and, of course, souvenirs.
Vin Chaud, or hot wine, was sold throughout the market, just like the Glühwein in Germany, however instead of sausages and potato pancakes, it was crepes and cheese. The day was sunny and brisk. I ordered a ham, egg and cheese crepe and ate it while watching the Parisians and tourists happily bustle from one stall to the next looking for that perfect purchase.
After I left the Christmas market on the Trocadero, I walked up one of Paris’ broad streets towards the Arc de Triomphe. The Arc is at the center of one of Europe’s largest and most confusing auto roundabouts. Radiating out from the roundabout are twelve major streets, including the Champs-Élysées, my next destination.
I strolled down the Champs-Élysées under the glow of ever-changing light displays. The colors of the lights lining the grand boulevard changed from blue, to red, to white, to amber and back again. The many shops and stores lining the street added to the festive atmosphere, with displays of lights going from street level up four and five stories in the air.
It was a weekday evening and the street was crowded with pedestrians on the sidewalks and a never-ending flow of cars. In the distance, I could see the lit-up Ferris wheel at Place de la Concorde, on the other end of the Champs-Élysées. Another Christmas market was set up along both sides of the street at the Eastern end of the avenue. The stalls were all white rather than the traditional-looking rough wood and the goods being sold were French rather than German. How the Churro, a Spanish treat, got to be so popular in Paris, I will never know.
I passed a children’s area where parents were trying to get their children to sit on a brightly colored Christmas train for a ride around the track. Many of the children were not so sure about what this strange contraption was and did not look so jolly. Opposite the children’s area was a small ice-skating rink where adults and children were going round and round the small patch of ice and enjoying themselves.
I walked through Place de la Concorde, where the giant Ferris wheel was lit in white and a huge Christmas tree adorned the northeastern corner of the square. I was headed towards the small, but ritzy, Place Vendôme. If you want to spend some serious cash Place Vendôme and Rue de la Paix are the places to go in Paris (although spending copious amounts of money anywhere here is not difficult). Here chauffeured limousines wait in the street as the rich and famous buy their Christmas gifts at stores with names like Louis Vuitton, Cartier and Charvet. The decorations here are just like the street and shops, upscale and elegant.
By now I was tired of walking, so I headed for the nearest Metro station where I boarded a train headed towards the Hotel de Ville, Paris’ city hall. I exited the Metro at Hotel de Ville and explored the streets to the north in an area known as the Marais.
This is one of my favorite areas in Paris, because it has many small streets, shops and restaurants, and easily lends itself to exploration on foot. Unlike the Champs-Élysées and the tourist sights, there are not the hordes of people crowding the streets here. The small streets have Christmas lights strung across them lighting up the night and adding to the holiday charm.
Eventually I wound up headed back towards the Seine River and the Ile de la Cité, the small island in the middle of the river where medieval Paris was founded. The big attraction on the Ile de la Cité is Notre Dame Cathedral, one of the grandest examples of Gothic Architecture and one of the must see sights of Paris.
I could go on at length about the gargoyles and flying buttresses of the church, but the real thing I was there to see that day was the scale model of Bethlehem and the Nativity inside the church. The model was laid out inside the church and depicted the small village of Bethlehem on the night of Jesus’ Birth. At one end you could see the manger and the baby Jesus, but on the other end you could see ordinary street scenes and small model people going about their evening unaware that anything special was happening. I am not sure if it is historically accurate or not, but the model was interesting to look at if for nothing more than to admire the work that went into making it very detailed.
After a long day of walking and exploring the lights and decorations of Paris during the holidays, I decided it was time to get a real meal and a glass of good wine. I met up with some of my fellow crewmembers at La Fontaine de Mars, a good little restaurant not far from the Eiffel Tower. I enjoyed an excellent and typical French meal of Escargot (yes, snails) steak with Béarnaise sauce, potatoes, and of course a glass of house red wine in the company of my colleagues and full of French Christmas cheer. If you have the opportunity to visit Paris during the holidays, I highly recommend it!