After years of watching the French Open, longing to see those burnt orange clay courts with my own eyes, my May was finally exam free and I was able to book the Eurostar and head to Paris for Roland Garros. Wimbledon might be the most prestigious of the grand slams but the French has long been my favourite. Considering it a waste to cross the channel without also exploring the “City of Love” (or is it lights?) we turned the tennis trip into a quick city break and hastily plotted to see as much as we could of Paris during our brief stay.
Due to the last minute nature of booking tickets for Roland Garros, all hotels in Paris were grossly overpriced so we opted for Air BnB, finding a small but ideally located apartment in the 15th arrondissement (or district), a short metro from the tennis and the main attractions, and a perfect, quiet neighbourhood for those hoping to avoid tourist hotspots.
With an extensive metro system, getting around Paris is relatively easy and inexpensive, costing a mere €1.90 per trip. However, don’t just expect a Parisian edition of the London underground. Despite its convenience, the metro is unforgiving and unfriendly. Don’t expect any ticket barriers allowing for buggies and luggage – you’ll have to squeeze through a narrow and mildly aggressive turnstile, suitcase in hand. The trains also do not hang about with doors often opening before the train has come to a full stop and little time to hop on and off. If its possible (and warm enough), its delightful to go on foot; the streets of Paris boast endless examples of picturesque architecture – plus it will burn enough calories to justify indulging in another creme brûlée at dinner.
Our first full day in Paris was devoted entirely to Roland Garros. The tennis complex sits slightly away from the centre but is easily accessible via metro. Gates opened at 9:30am so we rose bright and early, feasted on delicious baguette from the boulangerie down the road and made our way, seat cushions (which we sorely needed) and sun hats in hand. Frankly we looked pretty idiotic, setting out on a chilly morning in our sun dresses with sunglasses perched on our heads, but the weather quickly heated up and court Philippe Chatrier acts as an efficient roasting tin. By the end of the day, burnt shoulders were plentiful amongst our fellow spectators.
Fortunate enough to attend both Wimbledon and the US Open I can say that Roland Garros is significantly more relaxed than the former, but free from the commerciality of Flushing Meadows. The grounds are compact and like SW19 are decked out with immaculate floral arrangements. Court side, quiet conversation is acceptable creating a lighter atmosphere than the intense silence of Centre Court but without the blaring music and slight chaos that distracts from proceedings on Arthur Ashe. Arguably it is a little too relaxed for many spectators were constantly chopping and changing their seats. If you left the stadium for even the shortest time your places would be filled by someone from a few rows behind hunting for a better view. As someone who likes to set up camp I found this itinerant attitude to watching the tennis very odd and occasionally quite irritating. Nonetheless, Philippe Chatrier is a much smaller court than its equivalent show courts in London and New York, ensuring all-round excellent views and a cosy atmosphere.
Packing away the many Roland Garros souvenirs we had purchased (the gift shop made a fair penny out of us), the second day of our city break was devoted to a whistle-stop sightseeing tour, beginning with a hour long boat trip along the river Seine. There are many similar options available but we selected, quite randomly, ‘Vedettes de Paris’, an hour long round-trip starting at the Eiffel Tower and taking in the sights of Notre Dame, the Louvre and providing brief backgrounds to the many bridges that cross Paris’ famous waterway. For those keen to take in Paris quickly there is a lot to see from the river and at a relatively inexpensive €15, its worth it.
Back on dry land we posed for photos at the Trocadero where there are truly unrivalled views of the Eiffel Tower – but be warned, everyone else has the same idea and those striving for the perfect Instagram shot may have to resort to photoshop to extract their pesky fellow tourists from their new profile picture. For a slightly less crowded view of the tower head to la Place Joffre where there is a beautiful park and the perfect picnic spot to take in the breathtaking view that is le Tour Eiffel. From the Trocadero its a short walk along Avenue Kléber to the terrifying roundabout that encircles the Arc de Triomphe and the Champs Elysées where you can shop to you heart’s content.
Taking a slight diversion from the mammoth shopping district to the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, we stopped by the Elysée Palace where we were even fortunate enough to see newly-elected French president, Emmanuel Macron, heading out of his political home.
We ended our Parisian excursion taking in the awesome view of the Champs Elysées from la Place de la Concorde, picking up a divine ice cream from a small stand, Amarino, located at the top of le Jardin des Tuileries. With more time we would have made our way through the gardens to the Louvre but with that it was time to indulge in our final Parisian dinner.
Meal times as a tourist can often be where the majority of your holiday fund goes. Its often very tempting to eat in the typical tourist hotspots but you don’t have to step too far from the beaten track to find smaller authentic cafes and restaurants where you can indulge in the famous French cuisine. Our first evening we used the trusty Foursquare to discover La Fontaine de Mars on la Rue Saint-Dominique, a typically chic French spot a short walk from the Eiffel Tower with both indoor and outdoor seating. We were coaxed in with the promise of air conditioning to relieve us from the balmy evening air and promptly ordered the most French things we could find – confit du canard followed by creme brûlée – all of which were divine and worth the app’s advised €€€ price tag.
Food inside Roland Garros is plentiful, with stands conveniently located around the complex, with even the option to pre-order your food via the ‘My RG’ app, although, unfortunately, disorganisation at the pick up point erased any time saved. If you have time, and are keen to save money, I would advise buying at least your lunch outside of Roland Garros. The food inside was much cheaper than I expected but don’t expect any authentic Parisian fare – the menu is mostly made up of pizza, burgers and hot dogs, presumably catering to the many American tourists.
On our final evening in Paris we opted for slightly more upmarket dining, heading to Brassierie Vagenende on Boulevard Saint-Germain. Deviating slightly from the French theme of the trip I chose a caprese salad to start with bufala mozzarella as exquisite as you would expect in Italy itself. Followed up by a half roasted chicken with French fries and a carpaccio of pineapple and sorbet for dessert, the food on offer at Vagenande was well worth the elevated price tag.
On returning to the familiar sights of London, the differences between these two major European cities is stark. Rarely in Paris can you expect to find chain shops and a Pret on every corner: independent restaurants and cafés dominate the city streets. The scenery is overtly traditional and lives up to every expectation you may have of the City of Lights however I can’t help but think it lacks the dynamism of London or Berlin. Turn a corner in the former and find the remains of Tudor England behind a bustling modern shopping street. Paris, meanwhile seems deliberately stuck in its past, determinedly honouring the art, philosophers and architecture of times gone by. Its endearing in many ways, certainly stunning and a treat to which I would gladly return but does it rank as the ultimate European city? After this trip at least, I’m not so sure.