By MARK HUME originally appeared in The Globe and Mail travel section.
Friends told us Paris was different in the winter, that it was better, as if somehow the cold rains of November and December had washed away the false patina left by the tourist crowds of summer.
Paris, which has a population of just over two million, gets more than 35 million foreign visitors a year, and most of them come in the six months from May to October. Notre-Dame de Paris, the Gothic cathedral that looms majestically over Île de la Cité, gets 13.6 million visitors a year. At the Basilique du Sacré-Coeur, which looks out from the heights of Montmarte, 10.5 million visitors annually are stunned into silence, and the Musée du Louvre, with a collection of art that is mind-numbing, draws 8.3 million tourists.
In the heat of summer, when Parisians largely flee to the seaside, tourism peaks. Want to meet an American in Paris? Book a trip in July or August. You will also meet a lot of people from a lot of countries – and most of them will be in front of you in a lineup.
The summer I first visited the Louvre, the most visited art museum in the world, the lines were Olympic-size. Two-plus hours after queuing up (and that was on a good day), I finally got to see Mona Lisa’s enigmatic smile for a fleeting moment, before being pushed on by the shuffling conveyor belt of babbling tourists. It was like speed dating for art lovers.
Then there were the lineups for the toilets, where the panic was palpable.
So here were friends, e-mailing from Paris, to say there were no crowds – anywhere – except on the streets where Parisians were busy shopping, walking to work and café hopping. Our friends said with the hordes of tourists gone, the city, and its residents, had reverted to a more natural state.
“I will never visit Paris again in the summer,” wrote Lori, who with her partner, Charlie, had holed up for the winter in an apartment they had rented in le Marais, the city’s historical centre. On a whim, we booked our tickets.
It is always a bit intimidating to land at a big airport after a long flight and face the challenge of getting into the heart of a city. A cab would take us to the street we wanted for €60, or $82, but with train service to Charles de Gaulle Airport, that seemed too safe and too costly an option. We’d take the train – if we could just figure out how.
That’s when the young French student, in Paris for a job interview with Air France, offered to show us how to operate the ticket machine, where to catch the next outbound train, and then accompanied us until we got off at Gare du Nord, the sprawling train terminal that links to a network of Paris Métro lines. In the chaos of the station another Parisian guided us to the taxi stand, which had moved because of construction. He just thought we looked a little confused, and wanted to help. In Paris, you don’t expect such common kindness, because the residents are notorious for their cool indifference. But that appears to be a summer thing, for in late November we found a different city, and a different people. Parisians were relaxed and welcoming; good-humoured even when we mangled their beautiful language
This time, it took five minutes to get into the Louvre, and although you couldn’t be alone with Mona Lisa (there will always be at least 20 people, with flash cameras, in front of that portrait), you could stroll through a nearly empty gallery to gaze upon Michelangelo’s statue The Dying Slave without anyone to bother you.
A day later, in the uncrowded Musée Rodin, we wandered from room to room in the 18th-century mansion where the father of modern sculpture, Auguste Rodin, once lived. It was so quiet you could hear the floorboards creak, and I had the feeling we’d somehow stumbled in after hours.
Later, we discovered last-minute tickets were available for a concert at Notre Dame. Gazing up at the vaulted ceiling, where the choral voices rose into the echoing darkness, it was hard to believe this was not an event that you had to book weeks in advance. But we just asked for tickets, and the woman at the booth said, “Come half an hour before; there will be seats for you.” And there were – right near the front.
There were also no lineups to get a table at the small cafés around Sacré-Coeur, which are packed all summer. As we sat outside in the pale November sun, warmed by propane heaters and coffee, we were surprised to find that Parisians were interested in where we were from. They wondered what we thought of their great city. They made sure we got the right change, offered directions on the streets and when we worked up the courage to use the self-service Vélib bicycle system, we encountered the most unexpected thing of all – courteous drivers.
In short, Paris in winter was a revelation.