Our next day was our first weekend day in June Paris, and the city groaned under the weight of human bodies. Places where we’d previously seen empty were swarmed with selfie-stick armed visitors, there were lines at places we’d simply walked into a few days ago. We descended to the path along the Seine to meet up with our friends at St. Chappelle Chapel. These roads have been converted into pedestrian walks, with little diversions for kids along the way like small playgrounds and climbing walls built into the stones along the bank. It’s a way to escape the crowded overland and move through the city in peace.
Saint-Chappelle, built in the 13th century, is known for its stained glass, and in this it does not disappoint. The chandeliers appear to float in midair, lending even more of a magical air to the multicolored space inside. While waiting in the short line to get in, a French man behind us struck up a conversation. He had lived in Paris for 20 years but had moved out, and was now bringing his son to come visit for the first time, and was clearly so excited to show him around the glittering city. I know that feeling – it’s the same one I get when I take my kids to the Exploratorium in San Francisco, or introduce them to a favorite childhood book of mine. Some of it is the joy of sharing a beloved experience with your kids, and some of it is the magic of watching them feel the wonder of it for the first time. He told us all sorts of fun facts about the chapel, that the palace courtyard in which we stood was the hall of Kings, and that the pillar on the right when you enter has “29 January 1910” inscribed on it and a line below about five feet off the ground, indicating to where the waters of the Seine rose during the great flood of that year.
Onwards to Montmartre and Sacre-Coeur, and here especially was where the annoying side of tourist Paris reared its ugly head. Crowded sidewalks and side-by-side tchotchke shops selling all the same made-in-China crap that will eventually end up in a landfill. I’d premarked a few possible lunch places on Google Maps and we went to check out a creperie. The one I’d wanted had too long of a wait for starving bellies, but voila internet, there was one around the corner with good reviews. We headed over and it was tiny, with only a few two top tables left. The kids took one table like little gourmands, and we had our own. Creperies are the best lunch options in the city in my opinion. For between 10-15 euro for the lunch special, you get a savory crepe, a sweet crepe, and a drink of soda or cider, the latter of which is served in a wide-mouthed shallow mug. C’est magnifique!
We headed up the stairs to the cathedral after lunch, being accosted by men who tie a bracelet onto you and then demand money. Most of us walked on by but as we’re a large group a few were bound to get trapped in the net of deftly lassoed embroidery floss over a pinky finger before being able to shake free. Some steps up the hill later and we stood at the base of the white travertine cathedral, built in the years around 1900.
I downloaded the free audioguide, and the boy and I listened to a few seconds as we walked around. It should be mentioned here that this was NOT one of the boy’s best days. He kept picking fights and bickering with his sister, and then me. We were listening to the audioguide together on low speakerphone volume, him standing on my right hand side. The girl was on my left and talking to Dana on her left. The boy then leaned over and across me, nearly knocking over a cordon holder in the process to ask the girl what she was talking about, as he can’t bear a discussion to be had without his input. She rebuffed him and wouldn’t really tell him, which I say fair – you can’t expect people to repeat every conversation which you’re not part of. But then he leaned back to me, annoyed that his sister wouldn’t acquiesce to his demands and became upset that I continued to listen to the audioguide without his presence. “You’ve got to pick – you can either listen to the audioguide with me or walk over and join their conversation. You can’t try to do both at once,” I admonished. Apparently this was too much for him to handle and he got very upset and started fighting back with me. As Sacre-Coeur is meant to be a silent space, this means we had to walk out of the chapel a few times to work this out. Even then, it wasn’t finished and he continued to needle his sister and at one point actually hit her later in the day.
I’d like to chalk it up to heat and fatigue and hunger, but it’s still obnoxious to deal with at the time. Small graces though – the next day as we were walking along he apologized for his behavior the previous day, “I’m sorry for being so mean yesterday,” he admitted. And this I appreciate, for we all have days when we’re just not quite ourselves for whatever reason, but I’d venture that most of us adults aren’t quite as good at acknowledging it. I know I’m not. More importantly, it goes to the rhythms of travel with children. Not every moment is sheer delight – almost every day are small squabbles, corrections, and minor breakdowns. We get through them, and memory is good sandpaper to erase the edges of the hard days, and leave behind the soft glow of happy times only.
We were all spent by the end of the day. I will share here an unpopular opinion, but it is this: Sacre Coeur is skippable unless you are someone who loves seeing cathedrals. If that is the case, do not miss it, but if not, then don’t bother – at least not on a weekend day when the descending hordes make it impossible to enjoy the experience. The area of Montmartre surrounding was lovely, and I wish we’d had more time to just wander the streets, but given the heat and fatigue, it wasn’t to be. Hot, sweaty, and feeling squashed into the city, our flat and dinner was a true relief.
Sunday was another looming weekend day, and we decided to avoid the city and seek refuge in greenery. My initial plan was to take the Metro to the Bois de Vincennes on the Eastern border of Paris, but I couldn’t find a bike rental place for kids that was open on Sunday. This ended up being a very happy accident. We ended up instead in the Bois de Bolougne on the Western edge of Paris. When I’d read up about it, I saw a Frank Gehry building – the Foundation Louis Vuitton – that looked beautiful and housed an art museum. I bought a family ticket online and off we went. Arriving at 11, we rented bikes and rode around the park for an hour first. Not really knowing where to go, we got a little off track and out of the really lovely woodsy part. If I did this again, I’d make sure to look up some riding paths first or at least stay in the western side of the park. It was hard for me to enjoy the ride, honestly. I felt some of the Paris gloss had worn off after the day yesterday in tourist ville, instead of where we had previously spent it in “pleasant surprise-ville” or “picnic-in-a-garden-ville.”
When we’d walked in earlier we’d passed by the Jardin d’Acclimation and saw a queue. What’s the queue for? As it turns out, the Jardin is actually a very large space containing green areas for picnicking and also an amusement park, paddling pool, sprinkler area, and multiple playgrounds. Busy though it was, it is almost entirely French with few tourists that we could hear. A ticket to the foundation also gets you entry to the Jardin, and this was a fun surprise. We got surprisingly tasty sandwiches from a little shop outside the park and walked in for a picnic before our museum visit. My travel mood was restored! I had again the enjoyment of a pleasant surprise and a delightful picnic in a park!
I wasn’t sure what to expect from the institute. I knew there was an art exhibition, but not much else. Friends, this is a fabulous place and deserves a stop by all who come here. The building itself is something else, with swooping reflective glass wings that guard over it. Depending on the angle, the roofs reflect the cloudy sky or the shimmering movement of the fountain below.
Currently there is an exhibition featuring African artists, which had some of the most innovative pieces I’ve seen recently. There’s an excellent free audioguide which comes with a pair of very cool earbuds clad in wood which you get to keep at the end of your visit! If you go, get the audioguide.
After the galleries, we wandered around the building itself and admired the angles from the interior.
Then the Jardin beckoned – there are a lot of fun rides to be had for 2.90 euro/ticket, but we wanted to get in a little more time with our friends, who had opted for museums and the tower that day. The kids settled for a run through the playground and then the misters to cool off, and back home we went.A metro ride later and we were at the Place de Republique, where on summer weekends they have a kiosk with free board games to borrow and play on tables set up on the plaza and a bunch of free outdoor games for children scattered around. We met back up with Rob, Dana and S, and left the kids to the games. We went across the street where we could still watch them playing and had a beverage to end our time in Paris together. Occasionally I’d see the girl running across the way, foam sword in hand in front of her chasing away an enemy and with a white felt crown on her head, looking all the world like Max from “Where the Wild Things Are” just without the wolf suit. Then I’d take a sip of my Provençal rosé and return to the conversation.
After returning to the flat and eating leftover meze, we began to hear what seemed like live music just out the window. A piece finished and I heard clapping – it WAS live music! I craned out of the window but couldn’t see any players. We were tucked in for the night, but my curiosity got the better of me and I headed down the stairs to see where it was coming from. As it turned out, across the street in the little bar were musicians who looked like they’d gotten off of a concert gig and were now just playing for fun. Tarantella, the Star Wars theme, Hey Jude – all were up for grabs for the tuba, stand up bass, violins, cello, and trumpet players. Another pleasant travel surprise! Eric and I went over to listen and play a game of backgammon on a magnetic travel set I have. I am loath to report the truth, but it will be told – he won the game handily