Reasons to love Paris in the winter |

Reasons to love Paris in the winter

I live in a small rural town in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada in Northern California. Life is slow here – life is sweet – life is good. But my partner Dianne Marie and I have a small problem. We suffer from the travel bug. They say it’s incurable!

Every few months we need to go somewhere and explore more of our planet, preferably some place we haven’t been before.

When Dianne Marie decided she just had to visit Paris this past January and stay there for a couple of weeks, I did not question her decision – even though conventional wisdom does not call for Paris until spring. I had been in the City of Lights before, but only for a few days in the summer, along with far too many other tourists.

Thus, we left the relative comfort of our California weather and flew into the French winter, not knowing what Mother Nature might have in store for us. Bypassing the various online travel channels, we used our phone and fax to make our hotel reservations for the first couple of nights. We chose a small hotel in the Marais district, an area that has gone through many changes, from agricultural to home of fashionable mansions of the aristocracy and then neglect, until it once again became chic in the 1980s. We found it to be an ideal location, close to the Metro “St. Paul” station and many tourist attractions. Our two-star hotel was very nice, but two days later, while walking around the neighborhood, we were able to find a better value within a few blocks, at the Hotel Jeanne d’Arc. Our room was comfortable, clean, quiet, safe and roomy – and U.S. $40 less per night. Breakfast was not included but could be ordered for an extra charge. We decided to spend the rest of our stay here – without any regrets.

Needless to say, Paris is not a cheap date, particularly since the plunge of the dollar against the Euro. With the value of one Euro equaling U.S. $1.30 (vs. U.S.$0.80 less than two years ago) be prepared to spend U.S. $4.50 for a large cup of coffee (sorry, no refills!). As to museums and other attractions, there are not many places that don’t charge an admission fee, notable exceptions being the Cathedral of Notre Dame, the French Justice Courts and the Museum Carnavalet, which depicts the history of Paris.

One of the very first things we did was to buy a 15 Euro “Carte Orange,” which is a seven day pass on the Metro, bus and limited rails for most of Paris. An attractive feature of a January visit were the “soldes” (sale) signs plastered over most store windows, advertising up to 70 percent off the regular price of their goods. Dianne Marie really warmed up to the sight of lovely French dresses, scarves, shoes, etc., at truly significant savings. Unfortunately, our carry-on luggage would not allow us to bring back a washing machine or new water heater! I would be remiss, however, not to mention a nasty habit some of the smaller shopkeepers seem to have: We were shortchanged three times in one 24-hour period for such items as bread, a restaurant bill and some souvenirs. This from merchants who pay close attention to money matters. Each time we received a very perfunctory “sorry” when we pointed out their mistake. Tourists: beware!

Our gamble on the weather paid off. The temperature hovered between 40 and 47 F, with periods of very light rain, clouds and occasional sunshine. It was a bit on the cool side but good traveling weather compared to the torrid temperature in Paris last summer when several thousand people died of heat-related illnesses.

And truth be told, visiting Paris in the winter offers a lot of significant advantages:

1. You don’t need a lot of clothes, since everybody wears black in the winter. I got by with one pair of nice black pants to go with a few shirts, a warm sweater, two pairs of shoes and a jacket.

2. Since the weather is cool, you won’t be sweating or fuming about the malfunctioning air conditioning in your hotel.

3. There were absolutely no lines at the Louvre or any of the other museums. We saw queue signs and designated areas where, in the summer, people have to line up to either buy tickets or enter – or even just to view famous art works such as the Mona Lisa or Venus de Milo.

4. The opera and other theaters are open for business, unlike the summer, when they “go dark” for the season.

5. People, notably waiters and sales personnel, were very polite, most likely because they do not have to deal with throngs of hot, tired and demanding tourists.

6. Hotel prices are somewhat cheaper in the off-season.

7. The winter light is excellent for photography.

Paris is without doubt one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Just the physical layout is stunning and so different from other cities, due to the design laid out some 150 years ago by Baron Haussmann. The central core area is actually rather compact and without any high-rise buildings, and the major avenues are wide and arranged in a star-like manner fanning out from various round-abouts. There is a concentration of modern high-rise office and apartment buildings of various shapes, but they are located in a distinct district several miles west of central Paris that is called “La Defense.” It is an interesting area, distinguished by the Grande Arche, a huge, cube-like structure built in 1989, which marks the western end of the Grand Axis starting near the Louvre Pyramid. There is also a large shopping center, an IMAX Theater, an ice rink and other entertainment venues, but this part of Paris is not often on the agenda of most tourists.

We only left Paris once, taking advantage of a fine, sunny day to head out on a one-hour train ride to Rouen in Normandy. We were fortunate to be accompanied by an old Parisian friend of ours, who took us to various points of interests here. Foremost was the famous local Cathedral of Notre Dame, another beautiful example of Gothic architecture, and featuring impressionist paintings by Monet. The old district of Rouen is likewise unique – with many of its houses dating back to the Middle Ages – as was the old brick tower where Joan of Arc was imprisoned before being burnt at the stake.

As we expected, we never got to see all the places we marked in our guide book. Our major emphasis was on museums and theatrical performances and we did very well, except for our inability to get tickets for the Bolshoi Ballet at the Opera Garnier. Their week-long performances had been sold out weeks before our arrival. And so, we’ll likely have to revisit Paris another day to fill in the gaps. When we do, we will make certain to do so again in the off-season. Until then – Au Revoir a Paris!

Walt Fraser is a local writer who enjoys travel. He also hosts a classical radio program on a local station. He can be reached by e-mail: or P.O. Box 2974, Grass Valley, Ca. 95945.

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