The plane touched down in Los Angeles on December 14, 2019. After a 12-hour flight from Europe, we were exhausted but deeply satisfied with our latest adventures in Paris, Belgium, and London. We had no foreshadowing that our travels would come to an abrupt halt. Within a month of our return, the world’s nations began shutting their borders against the COVID-19 pandemic like falling dominoes.
PART 1: PARIS SNAPSHOTS
In my imagination, Paris in December is awash in the soft glow of Christmas lights. Other major cities, such as Vienna, New York, and Copenhagen, use the Christmas season as a way to brighten up an otherwise dark winter. Paris remains cool and aloof. With proper research, one can find some sophisticated holiday cheer.
That first afternoon in Paris was dark and grey, but we soon entered a privileged sanctuary from the elements–the Four Seasons George V Hotel. For the price of an afternoon tea, we gained admission for a few hours into one of the most glorious holiday settings in Paris. A piano played softly in the background, a glass of champagne softened the hard edges of jet lag, and the decor and pastries took our breath away.
As evening descended, we extracted ourselves from the deep warmth of the plush couches at the George V. Bundled shoppers and tourists strolled along the nearby Champs-Élysées. In a nod to the season, the trees suddenly lit up as far as the eye could see. Paris is stingy with Christmas, so this simple red light display was a thrill.
During previous trips to Paris, I spent scant time in Monmartre. I had read that Monmartre had become tawdry and touristy. Contrary to those negative reviews, the neighborhood captured a bit of my heart on this visit. Perhaps it won me over with the teeny-tiny Christmas market at the metro station, which included stalls selling champagne and escargots. More likely, it was the fabulous walking tour led by a company called Paris Walks, which describes the tour on its website:
On this picturesque walk you will discover a delightful neighbourhood with old winding streets, the vineyard, artists’ studios (Renoir, Lautrec, Van Gogh) quiet gardens, historic cabarets, the place-du-Tertre with its artists and the Sacré Coeur Basilica.Paris Walks
With spectacular timing, the tour ended in front of the Sacré Coeur Basilica just as a man knelt down and proposed to his girlfriend. With a stunning view of Paris as a backdrop, she tearfully nodded her assent. Hundreds of onlookers from all over the world understood the universal language of love and broke into spontaneous applause and cheers.
Winter travel usually equates to fewer tourists. During the pandemic, we have seen eerie photos of empty tourist sites all over the world. However, a slightly empty Paris during my trip was normal for the season and a great delight to me in Monmartre.
I had an ulterior motive for going to the neighborhood. For more than 50 years, my grandparents hung a painting of Monmartre’s Place du Tertre in a place of pride in their home. This painting, acquired from a gallery in Chicago, became a backdrop to my childhood. I visited the scene that inspired it.
The next stop on our itinerary was Versailles. The internet reviews of Versailles in winter were not promising–the gardens were desolate, the fountains were turned off, and it does not “do” Christmas. Yet, it is Versailles.
The former home of French monarchs, Versailles is more than just a single palace. Usually, tourists will head immediately to the main palace and then wander through the gardens. If there is time, they will then stop at the smaller palaces on the grounds, the Petit Trianon and the Grand Trianon. On past trips, I had not enjoyed the interior of the Palace of Versailles, because the crowds were so thick as to be absolutely overwhelming. We decided to reverse the order of sightseeing on this trip, as meticulously described by Hannah Wilson in The Best Itinerary for Versailles. By saving the main palace until late in the day, the large tour groups would be gone and the crowds diminished. On that pre-pandemic, December day, it felt like we had the entire estate practically to ourselves.
Our favorite meal in Paris was eaten at Le Coupe Chou near the Sorbonne. The restaurant oozes history, because it is comprised of four houses dating from the 14th, 16th and 17th centuries. Complete with a fireplace, its cozy interior was the perfect spot for a dark winter’s night. For the first time in my life, I ordered the hearty boeuf bourguignon, a French dish that was made famous in the United States by Julia Child. What I remember most from that night is sitting around a table with my brother, his wife, and my husband drinking lovely wine, eating delicious food, and enjoying each other’s company for hours without masks or worry.
That’s it. That’s all we did in Paris. This seems like a fairly abrupt ending, right? We had planned on staying in Paris for a week, but managed only three days. For an explanation, please read: A Paris Strike: Unexpected Detour. Undaunted, we headed off to Belgium a few days early. To learn more, please see: The Last Trip. Part 2: Belgium and The Last Trip. Part 3: London at Christmas.
To read more about our other adventures in France, please see: