Last summer, as we prepared for our fall trip to Paris, we decided to put the slow travel philosophy into practice. For the past couple of years, I’ve been reading and listening to podcasts about the slow living movement. It encompasses elements of mindfulness, inspiring you to be selective about how you spend your time, to take life at a more leisurely pace, and to focus on the present moment. Slow living leads to a less cluttered mind and feeling more connected to your life. A natural outgrowth, the slow travel movement encourages you to stay in one place for a while and get to know it, to do the things you really want to do, to leave space in your itinerary for serendipity, and to rest when you feel the need. Our plan was put to the test early on.
After a lengthy, chaotic entry at Charles de Gaulle Airport, where it took an hour and a half to get through customs and collect our baggage, and then another hour to get our train tickets into the city, we arrived in the cavernous Saint-Michel station. We emerged from under the green Art Nouveau metro sign with its elegant arching curves, with stems capped by flowers lit with orange, glowing bulbs. A sea of people met us on the tree-lined Boulevard Saint-Michel, tourists, students, and workers out for a late morning coffee. Full café tables lined the terrace and shoppers milled around the outdoor displays of Gibert Jeune, a book and stationery store. A small crowd assembled at the base of Fontaine Saint-Michel. We breathed in the air, city air to be sure, but not airplane, airport, or metro air. Paris. Finally.
Less than a block up the street we found our hotel, the Hotel Royal Saint-Michel. With two-and-a-half hours until check-in time, we planned to leave our bags at reception and enjoy a real coffee while relaxing in a café and then have lunch. But the desk clerk surprised us by saying our room would soon be ready. To pass the time, we looked at the framed reproductions of 19th-century photographs lining the entryway, marveling at the sepia-toned images of men unloading barrels from river barges, ladies in hats strolling along a quai, and horse-drawn trams. After a time I discovered a dimly lit lounge past the reception desk and around the corner. My husband settled into a comfortable chair and I helped myself to an espresso compliments of their Nespresso machine.
“I need to lie down for a while,” my husband announced.
He looked peaked and exhausted, having only slept an hour or two on the plane. In my heart I wanted to dump our suitcases and head out to enjoy a sunny day in Paris together; but looking at his face, I knew he was right. Sleep was what we both needed at the moment. Then we could head out refreshed and happy to explore in the late afternoon, in our own sweet time.
After tucking me and our bags into the tiny elevator, my husband hiked up the four flights of stairs to meet us. The room was lovely and large, by Parisian standards. I went straight to the window and flung back the drapes, hoping we weren’t facing the busy boulevard. Instead, I found a stunning view of the inner courtyard. As I opened the window a breeze flowed into the room, carrying with it muted city sounds: the distinctive European siren, a car honking, and protest chants.
“Look!,” I cried, motioning him over.
We poked our heads out with curiosity. The buildings’ dull gray zinc roofs were steeply pitched and scarred by repairs. Dormer windows protruded at intervals, interspersed by thin chimneys topped with clay chimney pots. The stones were a warm, dark cream, varying in hue. A row of windows marked each floor. Some of the weathered brown shutters were open showing scrolled, wrought iron window grills. Sheer white curtains tantalizingly held back secrets within, though, one flat’s parted curtains revealed a cluttered table. Perhaps an artist’s studio? Leaving the window and drapes open, we quickly fell into bed, peering out into the private world of the courtyard, fresh air on our faces. As we drifted off, faint church bells chimed noon.
“That must be Notre Dame,” I murmured. It was just across the river. Soon the chimes were echoed, louder, closer this time.
“Saint Severin? It’s just around the corner.” Halfway through, another set of bells began.
“Maybe that’s Saint-Julien, where we went to the Chopin concert, on our little street we love so much.”
We couldn’t believe we’d made it. Having booked the trip in February we’d looked forward to it for over six months, through getting our house ready to sell, selling it, moving, and then a long, hot summer in the desert. And here we were falling asleep to the sound of old church bells. From time to time, I woke to see clouds pass by, the sun peeking out, sharp shadows across the stone, shutters opened, shutters closed, and once a plane off in the distance, high above the rooftop. Paris would wait for us, refreshed and hungry, ready to explore. And I would always treasure our first afternoon spent lying in each other’s arms, listening to church bells and studying the life of an inner courtyard.
Paris is an excellent city for slow travel, it’s so much more than its ever increasingly crowded tourist attractions. As much as I love museums, there is nothing like exploring old churches, appreciating their architecture and stained glass, and viewing religious artwork where it was intended to be seen. It’s a feast for the eyes to wander the streets and notice architectural styles and elements, peeking into courtyards, and imagining bygone eras. There are long traditions in Paris of lounging for hours in a café nursing a coffee or a glass of wine, resting on a park bench reading and appreciating some moments in nature and the beautiful sculptures, or enjoying a leisurely picnic next to the Seine watching the sky change and boats drift by. Montmartre Cemetery’s beautiful sculptures and tree-lined lanes offer a lovely respite from the city, and it’s never been crowded when I’ve visited. Parisians value time spent contemplating and invented a special word for someone who lounges or wanders, flâneur. So slow down, notice, and listen; to the city, and yourself.
Are you a devotee of the slow travel movement? What are some of your favorite ways to relax or experience a place at a leisurely pace? Please share by clicking on the “post a comment” box at the top of this post.
Slow Travel: Things to consider when selecting your hotel
When selecting a hotel, it’s important to consider its proximity to a metro stop, which lines feed it, and the areas in which you will spend the most time. Although the Paris metro system can be quick and convenient, it can also be overwhelming and hectic at times. Taxis are notoriously difficult to catch and can be quite expensive. On our last trip, we successfully used Uber several times. Paris is a wonderfully walkable city. The more you position yourself to walk and integrate yourself into a neighborhood the more discoveries, and treasured memories, you will make.
Restaurants & Dietary Needs
Although we enjoyed our stay at the Hotel Royal Saint Michel, and we love the Left Bank, we found there were few vegan options other than juice bars and lighter fare. The 3rd and 4th arrondissements have a much higher concentration and variety of restaurants that cater to our eating style. We will likely stay in the Marais next time, as it will be much easier, and more pleasant, to walk a few blocks to breakfast or dinner, creating a better slow travel experience.