Early spring does not seem like the best time to visit the city of love. Paris in the rainy season is cold and drab. When I first stepped out of Charles de Gaulle airport I got the impression that we had caught the city off guard, inviting ourselves over when Paris was still in its pajamas, not ready to receive guests. But bad weather is not much of a deterrent when you’re in a foreign country for the first time.
My school had organized a March Break trip to France and Spain and this was my first foray abroad without my parents. As anyone who has lived in Canada can tell you, March is a month very much in the depths of winter. That year had been particularly cold and the day of our departure was met by record breaking snowfalls. Our flight out of Montreal was the last to take off before all the other planes were grounded for days after. We escaped winter’s last hurrah and headed for warmer climes.
Paris has a certain appeal that attracts people even in gloomy weather. There is something exciting about being in a place of such worldly acclaim. Maybe as tourists we arrive all too eager to open our hearts to the city, setting the groundwork for an inevitable romance. Whatever the reason, Parisian charm perseveres even in that grey time between winter and spring.
La cité des morts || City of the dead
Our first day in the city was met by overcast skies but we didn’t hesitate. Determined, we set off from our hotel beside Gare de l’Est and headed for the Père Lachaise Cemetery. This cemetery is the largest within the city limits and was established in 1804 under Napoleon. It was named after the Jesuit priest who had the dubious honor of being the confessor to Louis XIV. The cemetery is designed like a park with rambling cobblestone streets curling around gentle slopes dotted with tall trees.
The Père Lachaise Cemetery is a popular touristic destination and one of the most visited cemeteries in the world. These 110 acres of garden-like tranquility serve as the resting place for some of the most famous names in history. These “celebrities” include: Frédéric Chopin, Molière, Jean de La Fontaine, Oscar Wilde, Edith Piaf, even the remains of the medieval lovers Héloïse and Abélard can be found here. There are beautiful monuments commemorating the world wars and elaborate tombs and gravestones everywhere you look.
With spring on the way new grass provided a fresh contrast against the stone walkways and green buds peppered the bushes nestled between headstones. Here and there we could see crocuses and the odd flowering cherry blossom tree. Even the cool drizzle only added to the haunting beauty of this cemetery which we were free to explore at our leisure.
Le Marais || The Marsh
After spending a few hours wandering the alleyways of the cemetery we headed over to somewhere a little more lively. The historic district of Le Marais is one of the oldest quarters in Paris. The area was originally a swamp, thus earning the name Le Marais, but in the 12th century it was settled by a number of religious orders. A couple centuries later the district became the center of aristocratic life in Paris which lasted up until the French Revolution. Today this historic quarter is well known for its art galleries, quirky shops and trendy restaurants. From convents and monasteries, to sophisticated hotels and salons, to funky artisan stores and charming cafes — this neighborhood has seen its fare share of change.
We were let loose to wander around these narrow streets and eventually made our way out onto Place des Vosges. This beautiful square is essentially a large courtyard surrounded on all sides by an elegant red-bricked building with steep slate covered roofs. If walls could speak then undoubtedly this square would echo with the gossip accumulated over the ages from its many famous and illustrious residents. The courtesan Marion Delorme practiced her charms here and was eventually immortalized in literature by Victor Hugo who also came to call the Place de Vosges his home.
Our day had begun in Canada, where snow was piling up in feet, and ended on the slippery streets of Paris. Although we had travelled far and spent the entire day walking around our excitement was unfettered. The first signs of spring were budding on the branches of linden trees in the Places de Vosges and even the rain couldn’t dampen our spirits. We had arrived in Paris.