Chasing classical music history in Paris

In Paris, art is everywhere. It’s not an exaggeration to say every block inside the city limits boasts a little bit of eye candy — whether it’s a world-class museum, a row of elegant Haussmann-designed apartments, a sweet arbor covered in pink roses or just an attractive café.

With all this visual stimulation, visitors to the City of Light may momentarily forget the other four senses. (Okay, the other three: In this town, you won’t soon forget taste!) But doing so altogether would be a mistake, because this magical place is as sonically pleasing as it is aesthetically pleasing. After all, it’s been home to some of the greatest composers who ever lived.

Though Paris’ reputation for world-class art is due in large part to Debussy, Rossini and other famous music masters who resided there, few tourists will learn much about their legacy. That’s because sites dedicated to the city’s musical history have to compete with world-class art museums, shopping and restaurants. And not even the biggest classical fan wants to spend a day stalking Satie if it means missing the Mona Lisa or Moulin Rouge.

Luckily, as my most recent trip to Paris proves, it’s easy to make time for the classical alongside the classics. If you’re a music lover, you can have your macaron and eat it too. Here’s how to walk in the footsteps of Debussy, Chopin and other classical greats while still staying on the tourist trail.

Artwork at the Musee D'Orsay in Paris, photo by Jill Kimball

MUSÉE D’ORSAY

A trip to the Musee D’Orsay, where some of the world’s most famous Impressionist paintings are housed, is a must on any trip to Paris. Luckily, the museum houses a few delightful classical-themed gems for those who are as excited about Liszt as they are about water lilies. Here you’ll find portraits of Erik Satie and Hector Berlioz, Degas’ rendering of a night at the Paris Opera, and Franz von Stück’s arresting Beethoven mask, which I’ve hoped to see in person since childhood. Even when the D’Orsay isn’t paying outright tribute to the most famous Parisian composers, it still feels as if you’re floating through the visual equivalent of Debussy’s “Afternoon of a Faun” — especially on the museum’s famous fifth floor, which is all dreamy water lilies, soft lines and pastel landscapes.

Outside the Moulin Rouge in Montmartre, Paris, photo by Jill Kimball

MONTMARTRE

If you’re a first-time visitor to Paris, you’ll probably end up in Montmartre at some point during your trip. Home to heavyweights such as the Basilica of Sacre-Coeur and the Moulin Rouge, this hilly neighborhood was once the international capital of bohemianism and creativity. Among its famous residents were the painters Pablo Picasso, Vincent Van Gogh and Henri Matisse. Naturally, writers and musicians flocked here, too, holing up in cabarets by night and philosophizing over coffee and cigarettes by day. More than a century later, it’s still easy to see why Montmartre’s romantic, winding lanes and colorful storefronts attracted artists of all kinds.

Here in the 18th arrondissement, fitting in a taste of the belle époque musician’s life between visits to major tourist sights is easy. Just blocks away from Sacre-Coeur is Rue Cortot, where Erik Satie — he of the dreamy “Gymnopédie” piano pieces — once lived. And right around the corner from the Moulin Rouge sits Le Carmen, an elegant nightclub that was once the home of Georges Bizet. The grand foyer opens up to a massive bar area, which offers opera-themed cocktails (spicy “Habanera,” anyone?) and countless flavors of infused gin.

Chandeliers at the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles, Paris, photo by Jill Kimball

VERSAILLES

A day trip to this over-the-top palace, built just outside Paris by King Louis XIV in the late 17th century, is popular for a reason: Its interiors are jaw-droppingly opulent, and its acres of manicured grounds provide hours of free entertainment. For more than a century, Versailles residents’ fashion sense and food tastes set international trends, some of which persist to this day (macarons, anyone?).

So, too, did Louis XIV’s tastes in music. Jean-Baptiste Lully, the composer of the lively, balletic operas “Armide” and “Phaeton,”  was the Sun King’s composer-in-residence for decades, filling the palace with incomparable music on a regular basis. Versailles quickly became a must-visit destination for the biggest names in the biz, including Mozart and Charpentier.

Today, there are several ways to soak up Versailles’ classical history. If you’re already planning to tour the palace, simply grab a free audio guide on your way in and you’ll be treated to clips of the same music Marie Antoinette once heard, along with a few facts about the concerts that took place in the palace’s heyday, from sacred music in private chapel ceremonies to big parlor concerts. But the best way to connect with this estate’s classical history by far is to attend a live concert on the grounds. Held in the evenings after the crowds are gone, these concerts include music from the 17th century and today and often feature big-name soloists. In the warmer months, the palace sometimes moves the festivities outside, pairing the sweet sounds with a lighted fountain show.

Rossini's grave at Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris, photo by Jill Kimball

PÈRE LACHAISE CEMETERY

Most tourists visit this beautiful park to pay their respects to rock star Jim Morrison, probably the most famous figure buried here. That’s good news for classical fans, who might be more interested in the cemetery’s other rock stars. Chopin, Rossini, Cherubini and Poulenc are among the composers who rest here — and their intricate, hand-carved mausoleums don’t disappoint. Once you’ve gawked to your heart’s content, walk to Belleville or Le Banane for a bite — these neighborhoods are home to some of the city’s hippest bars, restaurants and coffee shops.

Arc de Triomphe in the evening, Paris, photo by Jill Kimball

EVERYWHERE ELSE

While you’re touring around Paris, keep an eye out for other tiny hints of the city’s rich classical history. While walking between the Arc de Triomphe and the Eiffel Tower, I spotted a street sign dedicated to Léo Delibes, whose lush Flower Duet has found its way into countless commercials and films. And as we strolled near the Moulin Rouge, we turned a corner and came eye to eye with a large sculpture of Hector Berlioz. And Chopin is everywhere in this city, from monuments in the Luxembourg Gardens and Parc Monceau to an entire small museum within the Polish Library.

Of course, the best place to see classical history come alive in Paris is at the Opéra National. I wasn’t lucky enough to attend myself…but it’s at the top of my list for next time!

Have you been to Paris? What was your favorite experience? Sound off in the comments!

Read next: Five cities that surprised me

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Five cities that surprised me

venice2

Travel is a funny thing. You can stare at guidebooks until your contacts dry out and you can consult Google maps for days on end, but try as you might, there’s no way to fully prepare for what’s ahead. No matter what, you’ll get lost, you’ll overestimate your energy level, and you’ll get caught in a surprise downpour without raingear. And at least once in your life, you’ll misread the timetable, find out the next train doesn’t arrive until 1 a.m., and spend the next few hours on an uncomfortable bench nibbling vending machine food and using your backpack as a pillow.

Unexpected moments like these can make or break a vacation, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse. Here, I share a few stories of cities that exceeded–or didn’t meet–my expectations.

 

Paris

paris

Before I visited Paris, I heard a few less-than-flattering anecdotes from friends that convinced me I’d find the French capital dirty, crowded and underwhelming. In a way, I’m glad I flew into Charles de Gaulle Airport one October morning with such low expectations. I’ve never been so pleasantly surprised!

Back in Italy, my study-abroad friends and I felt a little like the fates were already conspiring to make our trip to Paris terrible. The forecast called for constant rain, and there were so few hostel options left in the weeks before our departure that we took a huge security risk and booked a place in the Latin Quarter that didn’t offer storage lockers–something I’d never recommend to anyone. And yet, the moment we emerged from the underground Metro, I felt like I was living out an Edith Piaf song.

Everywhere we went, magical things happened. We made fast friends with our hostel bunkmates and spent a memorable night with them at a perfectly Parisian hole-in-the-wall student hangout down the street. One relentlessly cloudy morning on Ile de la Cité, we rounded a corner just in time to see clouds parting poetically above the majestic Notre Dame. In the suspiciously empty Louvre, I had the Code of Hammurabi and Venus de Milo to myself for minutes on end. We got to Versailles three hours before the inside of the palace opened, and it was the happiest accident we could have made: the royal grounds were so vast and beautiful that we lost track of time exploring them.

I could write rapturously about so much more–every plaza, every sidewalk cafe, all the incredible and affordable prix fixe restaurants–and maybe I will when I return someday.

What I learned: Go to Paris in October. Most of the tourists are gone, and the city is somehow even more beautiful when it rains.

Venice

venice

For years and years growing up, I dreamed of visiting Venice. The bright colors, majestic palaces, tiny canals and romantic narrow streets looked so unreal in pictures. I’m a little ashamed to admit how major a factor Venice was in my desire to study Italian in college. I spent so long idealizing the place that a letdown was almost inevitable.

I really, really hated my first trip to Venice. I went with two friends on a rainy Sunday in September, and the entire city center was so clogged with tourists and day-tripping Italian families that it was hard to see anything around me. There were long lines everywhere–at major attractions, restaurants, even stores selling Murano glass jewelry. After having spent a month studying in an authentic Italian town, Venice felt less authentically Italian than a Spaghetti Factory…and a heck of a lot more expensive.

The whole experience was so disheartening that I used the next day’s class assignment as an excuse to rant about it.

Unfortunately, the next time I found myself in Venice was the night before my departure from Italy. To prepare for our upcoming flight out of Marco Polo Airport, everyone in my cohort got a hotel room for the night in nearby Mestre and decided to venture into the lagoon for dinner. Without the rain and summertime crowds, wandering through the cobblestoned alleys in a less central part of town was pure magic. I kicked myself for spending so long nursing a grudge against Venice, the city that had been only an hour’s train ride away for a whole semester.

What I learned: If I ever go back to Venice, I’ll do it right. I’ll make sure I spend the night there so I can see its magic without the crowds. I’ll build a ton of wandering time into my trip and get lost on purpose. And I will never, ever visit on a Sunday.

 

New York City

newyork

Last year, I decided to take my very first trip to the East Coast. I’d always wanted to visit New York City, and I figured I’d come away from my five days there with the same opinion a lot of my friends hold: that while New York is a wonderful place to visit, I’d never be able to live somewhere so large and loud.

Boy, was I wrong.

How did I manage to fall in love with a city so expensive that I spent most of my nights bunking with 18-year-old boys in a hostel? So humid that I risked ejection from the U.S. Open stadium hopping between shady seats that weren’t mine? So crowded that I couldn’t find a single free seat to watch the Oregon game at the only Ducks bar in town?

I’m still not sure. The world-class art certainly had something to do with it: At the Metropolitan Museum, I had as many legendary pieces to myself as I did at the Louvre. (Do I just have good museum luck?) The surprising plethora of free activities, from Central Park to window shopping to the High Line to free Fridays at MoMA, played a role too. So did the huge selection of food from all over the world, from Jamaica to Yemen to Cambodia.

But what captivated me most about New York had nothing to do with its most legendary sights. It was the way I felt walking down the street. Even in my stretched-out shorts and sweaty cardigan, wandering around New York made me feel like I could take on the world. Knowing I might be strolling down the same cobbled lanes as legends like Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand and Henry James once did was thrilling. Even though its poetic old alleys and grimy brick facades may now be home to more millionaire movie stars than immigrant tenements, it’s still America’s Melting Pot, and it still pulses with infectious energy.

What I learned: I could totally live in New York…if I won the lottery.

 

Vancouver

vancouver

When I moved to Seattle, I discovered that most Pacific Northwesterners know and love Vancouver. But I can attest that people in my home state of California have little interest in British Columbia’s largest city. Its metro area is home to more than 2 million people, yet before I lived in Seattle, I knew it to be nothing more than an affordable filming location.

Those two decades of ignorance were my loss. Vancouver boasts fantastic ethnic food, stunning views, beautiful parks and so much more.

In a handful of weekend trips over the last six years, I’ve discovered that pretty much anyone can enjoy Vancouver–including people who hate cities! Backpacking college students will find fantastic, cheap and authentic ethnic food in almost every neighborhood, and they can party the night away on Granville Street, which turns into an energetic pedestrian mall on the weekends. Couples looking for a quiet weekend escape can the explore wild, forested Stanley Park, take in world-class museums and performances on the UBC campus and discover quaint ethnic bodegas and cafes in Kitsilano. Solo travelers will find anonymous company on Granville Island, a huge farmers’ market with endless gastronomic curiosities and tourists from all over the world. Hikers can take on the Grouse Grunt, one of the steepest schleps out there, and they’ll be rewarded with a jaw-dropping view and a complimentary gondola ride back down. And I’ve only just scratched the surface!

What I learned: It’s never a good idea to write a city off just because you haven’t heard much about it.

 

Budapest

budapest

I traveled to the capital of Hungary in 2008, before the age of Pinterest and career travel bloggers. At that time, the internet yielded curiously little information about the city. My travel buddy and I found a few key sights to check out, but we weren’t sure what to expect. I wasn’t so clueless about lesser-known Eastern Europe to believe the scene from “Eurotrip” was right on the money, but I admit I had vague images of unattractive concrete buildings, crumbling train stations and miserable weather.

Ironically, my travel buddy and I experienced all of the above during our three-day trip. But for every time-worn train station, there was a mind-blowing museum or a magnificent tiled roof. Next door to every midcentury monstrosity, we encountered an awe-inspiring synagogue or an intricate sandcastle come to life. And frankly, we weren’t too upset when temperatures dropped or the rain began to pour, because it meant we could duck our heads into one of the city’s many beautifully ugly ruin bars for some warming stew and beer.

I like to think that Budapest is the new Prague, which used to be Europe’s premier unpolished jewel. Prague is still unbelievably beautiful, but the crowds have descended and much of the city has been sanitized for the visitors’ benefit. But in Hungary’s largest city, charming seediness and urban grit are still as prevalent as old-world grandeur and cute shops selling handmade lace. If you’re the kind of traveler who doesn’t mind visiting a museum that houses world-class art but doesn’t translate its guides to English, or if you’d sooner grab a drink in a not-quite-converted warehouse than in a sleek new lounge, Budapest is the destination for you.

What I learned: Hungarian is one of the coolest and most confusing languages I’ve ever tried to speak.

Notre Dame, Ile de la Cite, Paris, France

Travel Week 1, Part 2: Paris

Ah, Paris je t’aime! Les boulangeries! La tour Eiffel! La Louve! Sainte-Chappelle et Notre Dame et …eh, je ne pas parle Francais…

Miraculously, I actually picked up enough French to get by without even glancing at a guidebook before I got on the plane. And even more miraculously, while people looked at my other traveling companions and immediately began speaking English, they looked at me and babbled strings of French in my face.

Versailles, Paris, France
Should I have taken this as a compliment? Is it cooler for people to think you’re French than for them to think you’re American? Before I got to Paris, I would have said “no”. I once despised the French language, French people and the country of France itself…for no apparent reason. Maybe my unreasonable hatred for all things French was the reason why Paris ended up being my favorite stop during the travel week–because I had low expectations that were dashed in an instant.

Eiffel Tower, Paris
On the plane from Barcelona to the City of Love, I pictured sidewalks lined with grime, scowling men with hanging jowls and huge noses, rude women turning up their equally large noses at anyone who even smells remotely American. Such are the negative stereotypes associated with Paris. As it turned out, my first day there convinced me the positive Parisian stereotypes were far more accurate. For instance, picture a parade of glamorous people in leather boots and designer togs walking down romantic, cobblestoned roads with hot, fragrant baguettes in their hands. Sound too good to be true? It isn’t. I saw it with my own eyes. (OK, some of them still have large noses, but hey, so do I.)

And best of all, we stayed in the Latin Quarter, a part of the city devoid of tourists and a million times cheaper areas perennially swarmed with visitors. The day we got there we grabbed lunch at a legitimate sit-down restaurant with fabric tablecloths–a great feat when you’re a student crunched for money–and ate three courses of food for 10 euros. That’s the cost of a cocktail in most of the city.

I could expound on all the sights I saw–Sainte-Chapelle, the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower, etc–but I’d rather focus on the two sights I found most impressive: Notre Dame and Versailles.

Notre Dame, Ile de la Cite, Paris, France
The home of the mythical bell-ringing hunchback was one of the first touristy places we visited in Paris. After our comparatively cheap lunch, we headed over to Sainte-Chapelle (whose enormous stained-glass windows deserve a shout-out, at the very least), then set out to find Notre Dame under grey skies. We knew it wasn’t more than two blocks from the Chapel, but we didn’t know which direction to walk. We started to wander, and then, as if by magic, we turned a corner and there it was. And then, more magic: the clouds directly above the church dispersed and cast a dramatic afternoon shadow on the ground. I wondered whether the heavens had conspired to allow us to see Notre Dame at its best just as we were arriving.

Even better, when we went inside, an organ-and-choir concert spontaneously began and we sat watching for what must have been at least half an hour. It was the most relaxing part of the entire trip, and frankly, my feet welcomed the break.

Apollo Fountain Versailles France
The next day, we hopped a train to Versailles early in the morning to get in line before the hordes arrived. Unfortunately for us, the train took an hour longer than we thought it would and the inside of Versailles didn’t open until noon that day. We had two hours to wander around. Luckily, the gardens behind the palace were so expansive that we actually could have been there longer than two hours without getting bored. The landscape was extraordinary–maniacally manicured in some places and, further back, rugged and wild. Fountains and Renaissance Roman statues abounded.

Poseidon fountain, Versailles, France

The palace itself was impressive but was marred by a modern art exhibit scattered around its rooms. In the middle of Louis XIV’s chambers you’d see a giant metal sculpture designed to look like a mylar balloon animal or a ceramic cast of Michael Jackson with a monkey. Even when I tried thinking about the deeper meaning this exhibit might be communicating, my mind came up blank.

Jeff Koons balloon sculpture in the Hall of Mirrors Versailles France
Though Versailles and Notre Dame are what I normally tell people are my highlights of Paris, the real highlight is slightly more complicated than this four-word answer. My favorite part of Paris was simply being in Paris, walking down any street at all, preferably one with very few people, and soaking up the Frenchness of it all. It really does feel like the romantic city everyone claims it is. If I marry rich, I might return one day with my significant other and experience the city the way it was meant to be experienced.

Arc de Triomphe, Paris

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