Cover: Gardens of Versailles in January
Photo: Kim Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media
Article by Kim Hull
Is January a good time to visit Paris?
If you don’t mind the colder weather and prefer a quieter Parisian experience with far fewer tourists, then January is perfect. Monuments and museums have no lines and you can actually walk up and see the Mona Lisa.
Like fashion and bargains? The Soldes d’Hiver (winter sales) begin mid-January, with discounts to 70%. And, of course, there’s Paris Fashion Week.
Add to that bargain airfares, cheaper hotel rooms, and a wide selection of Airbnbs available in the best districts, and you may be penciling a trip on your calendar for next January.
Our month in Paris in January
We left the United States on the first of January, arriving at Charles de Gaulle on the morning of the second. Looking outside, huge snowflakes were falling – a rarity in Paris. While January can be a bit rainy, it doesn’t snow much in Paris.
We grabbed an Uber and headed to our Airbnb in the 3rd arrondissement. We’d chosen the 3rd because we wanted to experience daily life in the city in a neighborhood near, but away from, the tourist areas. The 3rd is also home of the Marais, a lively area filled with bars, restaurants, shopping, and entertainment.
Having been to Paris numerous times in the past, we’d actually only experienced short stays in the City of Light, typically tacking on a few days at the beginning and/or ending of our time elsewhere as we arrived or departed France.
Where we stayed
Our Airbnb was located on a quiet street with great access to markets, shopping, and the Metro. Not the typical Paris flat, the apartment was creatively renovated from a former storefront and consisted of three floors. The entry, kitchen, and dining were on the main floor. A large living area with a desk was downstairs in “the cave” and upstairs were two bedrooms and the bath. The owners and property managers were attentive and the apartment was a good home base for us for the month.
Daily life in Paris
On lengthy stays in one place, daily life falls into a norm, with trips to the market, pharmacy and, when in Paris, bien sur the patisserie.
As with any city, visits to the market are more frequent because you carry your groceries home instead of loading them into the car. In Paris, there are several grocery store chains that have smaller footprints in the city. We frequented the Monoprix (kind of like a Super Target) and even got our first French loyalty card.
For fresh fish and produce, we frequented the Montorgueil markets. Located only about a kilometer away from the apartment in the 2nd arrondissement, it is a foodie’s dream street. Imagine Pike’s Place Market in Paris – that’s Montoguil with fishmongers, incredible produce markets, boulangeries, tea stores, floral shops, and more.
We walked or took the Metro everywhere, only taking Ubers to and from the airport or the train station. The Metro system is very efficient, inexpensive and is relatively clean compared to subways in some other major cities.
In Paris, sales are regulated by the government in France and occur twice each year, once in summer (soldes d’été) and once in winter (soldes d’hiver), and are the only time businesses are legally allowed to sell items at a loss. The sales last 6 weeks and the dates are set each year by the government.
This year, the sales began on the 11th of January and our day began at 10:00 AM when they opened at Forum Les Halles and in the shops near Etienne Marcel. In the afternoon, we then moved to the beautiful Galleries Lafayette.
Galleries Lafayette Paris Haussmann is a beautiful shopping mall in the 9th arrondissement near the Opera Garnier. Dating back to 1895, Galleries Lafayette is well known for its stunning domed ceiling which was completed in 1912. The shopping mall is a destination for practically anything one could want, with a wide range of brands and price ranges from bargains to haute couture.
When we returned to the apartment that evening with countless shopping bags, our Apple watches said we’d walked nine miles. Over the next few weeks, additional discounts occurred and, by the time we left France at the end of January, 50% – 70% was the common discount level in many stores.
Sacré-Cœur and Montmartre
It had been years since we’d been to Montmartre, so one Sunday morning we set out to visit the famous cathedral and potentially discover a new treasure at the Marché aux Puces flea markets.
Our first stop was Sacré-Cœur Basilica. Designed and built between 1875 and 1914, the beautiful church is the highest point in Paris, majestically sitting above the city on the butte Montmartre.
Leaving the cathedral, we wandered through the quaint streets of Montmartre, stopping in shops and visiting the artists in the square. During the Belle Époque at the turn of the 2oth century, Montmartre’s inexpensive rents and avant-garde atmosphere drew many artists to the area. Vincent Van Gogh, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Pablo Picasso, Claude Monet, Henri Matisse, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and many other artists of the period lived and worked in Montmartre.
Stopping in the Espace Dali museum, we wandered amidst the surrealist’s sculptures, drawings, engravings, and furniture creations. The museum also is home to the Art Gallery of Espace Dali which offers a large collection of sculptures and graphic artworks by Dali for sale.
Marché aux Puces
Heading down the hill from Montmartre, we made our way to the massive flea market in Saint-Ouen de Clignancourt, the Marché aux Puces.
Since its beginning in 1870, the market has been home to antique dealers, artists, importers and, in more recent years in the bordering areas, knock-off products galore. We strolled the winding aisles of the 15 markets that make up Marché aux Puces, picking up a few small treasures along the way, and having a fun, albeit cold afternoon of bargain hunting on the outskirts of Paris.
Let them eat cake
A short RER train ride from Paris, the Chateau Versailles is a perfect way to spend a day experiencing 350 years of history and French opulence.
Famously home to French kings and the royal courts throughout the ages, the Palaces at Versailles date back to 1623 when Louis XIII built a hunting lodge on the grounds.
Between 1661-1678, Louis XIV oversaw the first transformation of the site of the former lodge into a grand palace, with the king and his court moving into the palace and making it the home of the government of the Kingdom of France in 1682.
During a second phase of expansion, additions continued to the enormous and extravagant palace until 1715. In 1770, a theatre was built for the marriage of two of the palaces most famous residents, Austrian Archduchess Marie Antoinette to Louis-Auguste Dauphin of France, who would become Louis XVI.
Continuing palace additions and living a life of extreme luxury, the couple fell out of favor as France fell into serious financial difficulties. It was sometime during this period that, when told the people of France were starving and had no bread to eat, reportedly Marie Antoinette stated, “Let them eat cake.”
The royal family abandoned the palace and were forced to return to Paris, three months into the French Revolution in 1789.
Between 1789 and 1950, the palace and grounds fell into decline and disrepair, suffering through wars and the lack of upkeep. In the middle of the 20th century, restoration began with an objective of restoring the palace and grounds to its state in 1789.
Today, the palace is one of France’s most popular tourist attractions, with 8-10 million people visiting the palace, as we did this cold, but clear January day.
Strolling through the Hall of Mirrors, the King’s Chamber, and the Mesdames’ Apartments, one can only imagine what life was like for those that walked the same halls and viewed the gardens from the same windows so long ago.
In addition to the main palace and gardens, the estate includes the Palaces of Trianon and Marie-Antoinette’s escape from formal palace life, the Queen’s Hamlet.
We enjoyed a delightful lunch at one of the onsite restaurants, Angelina. While we didn’t eat cake, we did have the signature dessert Mont Blanc dessert, enjoying the decadent delicacy under the watchful gaze of an oil painting of Marie Antoinette.
Bubbles in Epernay
While sparkling wine is produced around the world, Champagne only comes from a small region about an hour by train east of Paris.
The majority of Champagne houses are located in Epernay and Reims. Reims is pronounced, “ranse” not “reams” and, if you say it wrong, they’ll have no idea where you want to go. Simplify things and go to Epernay, a charming town where some of the most well known champagnes in the world are produced.
Along the Avenue du Champagne, you’ll find Moet e Chandon, Perrier-Jouet, Paul Roger, and many more.
But, don’t just stop there – be sure to visit Nicolas Feuillatte located on a hill overlooking the town. Founded in 1972, Nicolas Feuillatte is a co-op of over 5,000 growers.
Now the third largest Champagne producer in the world, Nicolas Feuillate is one of the few facilities in Champagne that provides a full tour of the production facilities. The winery also opens a large new visitors center for the 2017 season.
For lunch – we recommend Le Banque in downtown Epernay – fabulous food, a lovely atmosphere and a by the glass champagne menu that is out of this world.
Weekend getaway to Prague
A friend from the Czech Republic stopped by on her way through Paris, so we decided to go to Prague with her for a long weekend. We’d never been to Prague, or Praha as it is called in the Czech Republic, and having the chance to experience it with someone from Czech was priceless.
Prague is magical – even in the coldest month of January. Check out how our weekend went…
Paris Fashion Week
We knew we were in Paris during one of the two Paris Fashion Weeks of the year when designers hold fashion shows to display their new lines, but hadn’t looked at the event calendar.
Leaving the apartment one day to pick up some sandwiches for lunch, I noticed a gathering of people at the end of the block near a beautiful building we’d admired all month.
Walking over to the crowd, I discovered the building was Jean-Paul Gaultier headquarters and that their Paris Fashion Week show would be held a couple of hours later. I picked up some sandwiches at the patisserie, hustled back to the apartment, grabbed my camera and headed across the street and jumped in with the photographers shooting the event.
Car after car arrived and simply stopped in the street as the fashion crowd ascended on Gaultier headquarters.
Attendees ranged from the eclectic to the famous to the iconic. Chloe Mortaud, Miss France 2009 arrived with Flora Coquerel, 3rd runner up Miss Universe.
French dancer and choreographer, Fauve Hautot, was a crowd favorite, as was French dancer and choreographer, Fauve Hautot, and former model, Majda Sakho.
After capturing the attendees arriving, I went to the apartment to warm up until the show ended. Opening the door of our apartment, Catherine Deneuve was standing a few feet away waiting for her driver. Only in Paris.
Museums, strolls and happy hours
Rounding out the January activities were museum visits, strolls along the Seine and countless happy hours. Most cafes and bars outside of the tourist areas offer happy hour specials, attracting the after work crowd on their way home from the office.
Museums are also a perfect activity for a January visit -they are far less crowded than in the summer months and they’re warm.
The best way to really get to know a city is by walking it and walk we did. On sunny days, we walked – sometimes up to 9 miles in a day.
As our time in Paris drew to a close, we packed up and caught a very early train to Italy. It was a fun, busy month in the City of Lights. Until next time Paris – which, will actually be at the end of February.
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