by Nancy Bestor
Sure, you chose an apartment over a hotel for the true Parisian experience. And soon after arrival you even convinced yourself that you’re just “one of the locals,” buying scrumptious fresh food and delicious yet inexpensive French wine at the neighborhood market and bread at the corner boulangerie. But when it registers that, in your jet-lag-induced haze, you’ve left the security code necessary to get in to your apartment building inside the apartment, you realize you’re just another tourist, probably an American, pretending to be cool, and failing miserably.
It was our ﬁrst day in Paris. We’d dropped the bags at our new home in the Marais district (3rd arrondissement) and spent the day walking the neighborhood, eating and keeping active in an effort to stay awake and quickly acclimate to our new time zone. We returned to the apartment about 7 pm, exhausted, hungry and loaded down with shopping bags carrying the aforementioned food and wine. We were looking forward to a simple, satisfying meal and a good night’s sleep.
Approaching the huge and heavy doors that separated us from the lovely private courtyard of our apartment building, I pulled out the key given to us earlier in the day. Quickly, I realized that it was for the apartment itself. What we lacked was the ﬁve-digit code that allows passage through the outside doors and into the courtyard. The very same ﬁve-digit code that was neatly written on a crisp sheet of paper and sitting on our kitchen table…inside the apartment. All four of us took turns punching close but incorrect numbers into the keypad. All four of us took turns knocking (okay banging) on the doors, but to no avail. Our girls were starting to complain, it was beginning to drizzle, and a situation that was at ﬁrst amusing had now become a bit worrisome. We looked at every Parisian who came by with hope. Hope that our building was theirs and that we could sneak in behind them as they arrived home.
Finally after what seemed like hours but was really only about 45 minutes, our saviors arrived. An elderly couple walked up to the keypad and started punching in numbers. Bob was able to explain (mostly through sign language) that we were renting an apartment in the building and had forgotten the code. The helpful couple let us into the courtyard and wrote down the code for us on a piece of paper, never once complaining or making fun of us—at least not in English.
We rented our Paris apartment through http://www.vrbo.com, otherwise known as Vacation Rentals By Owner. Their website is a great source of rental properties all over the world. Paris apartments in all arrondissements and all price ranges abound on the site. Most property listings include a description, a few photos and the location of the property. But, since the content of the individual property pages is maintained solely by property owners, the amount of information provided can vary greatly. Also, all business transactions are between the owner and the renter. And as you’ll read next it’s buyer beware as VRBO provides no protections.
We ﬁrst booked another apartment through http://www.vrbo.com, paying half the money via a wire transfer. About six weeks later, we received an email from the apartment owner, telling us that she was very sorry but she had cancelled our reservation as she had accidentally double-booked the property. She did wire our money back, but we had a few nervous moments, knowing that she had our $500 deposit, and we had to trust her to return it. We also had to scramble a bit to ﬁnd another option.
The one bedroom apartment that we ended up in runs about $1100 a week, all utilities included. There were comfortable beds for four, a small but well-equipped kitchen, beautiful wood ﬂoors throughout, free wireless internet, and best of all, it was located in a great neighborhood, just a short walk from many of Paris’ best sites. Our kind owner lived one ﬂoor above, and delighted us with a beautiful fruit bowl upon arrival and a generous gift of delicious chocolate croissants halfway through our stay.
Each day we walked to the Seine where we caught a ride on the Batobus (http://www.batobus.com), a boat/bus that stops at eight spots along the river, including the Eiffel Tower, the Champs-Élysées, the Musée d’Orsay, and our stop, Notre-Dame. We bought a ﬁve-day pass costing 17 euros for each adult and eight euros for each child. The Batobus runs about every 15 minutes until 9:30 pm, and our passes were well worth the money.
Our favorite sites included a nighttime climb to the top of the Arc de Triomphe for its outstanding view of the Eiffel Tower and the Champs-Élysées. At 10 pm, the Eiffel Tower explodes with a beautiful display of twinkling lights and at just about a mile away and well above the rooftops of Paris, the Arc de Triomphe is the perfect viewing platform. Sunset is also the best time for a visit to the Eiffel Tower. We arrived before dusk and by the time we got to the top (a mere 1063 feet above the city streets), the lights of Paris were blinking on and the view was beyond superb. It is well worth the fee (11.5 euros for each adult, 6.3 euros for kids 3-11) and the wait, which includes a line to buy tickets and enter the elevator to the second ﬂoor, and then a line for a second elevator that goes all the way to the top.
Our favorite museum, hands down, was the Musée d’ Orsay. Housed in a former train station, the interior of the building is itself a marvel, and we were all duly impressed with the truly incredible collection of works on display.
Another great excursion was a visit to the Cemetery of Pére Lachaise. This famous cemetery is the ﬁnal resting place of many famous artists, authors and musicians, including Frédéric Chopin, Marcel Proust, Oscar Wilde, Edith Piaf, Gertrude Stein, Jim Morrison, and more, including most recently, Marcel Marceau. The cemetery has more than 70,000 plots, and many of the tombs and monuments are themselves works of art. The poignant and haunting Holocaust memorial should not be missed. The cemetery is so big (17 acres) that we would have been lost many times if not for the map in our guidebook.
A favorite site for the girls (and Bob and I too!) was the climb to the top of the Notre Dame Cathedral. The 387 steps of its spiral staircases lead to the Hunchback’s own 13 ton bell and great views of the Notre Dame plaza below, the Eiffel tower in the distance and the famous gargoyles up close. Dating from 1163, the cathedral itself is stunning, with its Gothic architecture, story-telling carvings and beautiful stained glass.
Our apartment was also close to the Jewish district, and we spent many a happy lunchtime eating outstanding bagels with lox (3 euros), and falafels stuffed with hummus, eggplant and other veggies (4 euros) on Rue des Rosiers. We ate all our breakfasts at our apartment and many dinners as well, buying local produce, cheese and baguettes on a daily basis. It was great to have a home base, where we could come back, relax, watch a movie, or surf the internet, before heading back out into the neighborhoods of Paris again, this time with the ﬁve-digit code safe in our pockets and burned into our memories.