You are already wondering what I am talking about, but, you are smart enough to ask! I toured Paris for a fraction of the cost that the average person is willing to spend. How? Simple, I used a house swap. Many of you are now asking what I mean when I say I swapped houses. The concept is simple enough and offers huge rewards. Your choices are simple, stay in Paris hotels or, house swap, and stay in a nice flat embedded in the heart of French culture.
House swapping is a lesser known trend. Swapping can save you thousands of dollars or euros on any given stay. The contrast between a swap and a hotel stay are striking. A hotel caters to you. Any problem you may have is fixable with a phone call. If you need a meal prepared, simply call down stairs and their chef will prepare it as you wish. A hotel has a repair man for the TV or toilet, and a hotel will carry your bags for you.
By contrast, if you house swap you have to prepare your own meals or go out. No one will carry your bags, and you would have to call a normal repairman if needed. However, the benefits of a house swap far exceed those of a hotel stay. For example, local delivery service is much less expensive and offers more choices. The toilet and TV are more likely in working condition, and while no one will carry your bags, you often have 5 times the living space.
Ok, I can hear your asking me to explain house swapping. A house swap is when you sign up with a website like houseexchange.com. In very safe ways similar to a dating site, you meet other people looking to swap. You establish communications, chat them up, see pictures of their home and discuss arrangements. No one ever does anything that makes them uncomfortable. Once you find a home you are willing to stay in, you make arrangements to swap. Usually you give your key to a neighbor with instructions to allow your guests to accept the key on arrival.
The trust goes both ways. You stay in their home and they stay in yours….FOR FREE. The deal is mutually respectful and mutually beneficial. I know you are worried about your valuables, but let’s be honest, they are not stealing your HDTV and bringing it home on the airplane. You are in constant communication with your swap buddy for mutual support.
Once you arrive it is customary to provide a gift, often a local food favorite. You also can expect a binder full of emergency contacts, house rules, local info, and delivery menus.
My wife and I arrived in Rue Du Cliche, Paris around dinner time on the 24th of December. We found our flat to be perfect for two young newly weds. A small flat surrounded by markets, butchers, cafe’s, and local color. A dusting of light snow covered our neighborhood. Once slightly settled, I opened the curtains to our small balcony to reveal a row of rooftops, and just over the nearest, the well displayed dome of the famous Sacre Coeur basilica in Mon Marte. Christmas Eve, in Paris, and there stood Sacre Coeur in freshly fallen snow.
What was there left to do but bundle up, and walk 7 km through glorious Paris to the Notre Dame Cathedral for Midnight Mass!? And so we did. The walk was biting cold but it was hardly noticed. We were in love with the architecture, the history, and the glowing Christmas lights.
We stopped for dinner on the way. My first experience with terrine. I didn’t know what I was ordering and I didn’t care. I ate it all, taking my time to abandon my American style of inhaling food in favor of my host nation’s practice of patience and enjoyment.
At each corner we both gasped and said, “look at that one!” or, “This building is amazing!”. In fact, this went on for so long that we gave up. After several kilometers, we just looked at each other and laughed because we knew that we both thought the same thing, “this place is beautiful!”.
Reaching the Isle de Cite, we paused for a picture outside the timeless Note Dame Cathedral for a photo. Entering the 800 year old church, black with soot on the ceilings, I realized how many kings and conquerers had attended mass there throughout the ages. I was humbled. Having woken up in New York hours earlier, here I stood only an hour from midnight on Christmas. While I didn’t speak French, I understood every word said that night.
Christmas day began with a fresh croisant and cafe noir. We toured the palace, Seine, and Le Invalide. The subway system in Paris is not only immaculately clean by New York standards, but color coded and extremely efficient. The tomb of Napoleon at Le Invalide leaves one speechless. As grand and it is respectful, you leave feeling as though you have stood in presence of something far greater than yourself. The creators of this monument, have outdone themselves.
Leading up to New Year’s Eve we walked the city stopping in to escape the bitter cold every so often. I cannot express how wonderful this style of tourism can be. The cold forced us into so many perfect little cafes and shops. I never ate so very many wonderful micro meals in all of my life.
When given the choice of spending the day at the Louvre, or the skating rink at the Hotel DeVille, my wife chose to get up on ice skates for the first time. While many would sit aghast that we chose to ice skate over touring the wonders of the Louvre, we chose the path less traveled, and it made all the difference. A decade later we still smile at one another about the choice. My wife learned to ice skate in Paris, and it was my pleasure to be there with her.
We made sure to hit every major attraction that we could. The catacombs were as macabre as one might imagine a city of bones to be. The 186 miles of bones were actually moved to this quarry location and reburied! An estimated 6 million people have been laid to rest in these halls. Some have been arranged into church altars and various architectural layouts.
Pigalle was very much how one might expect. Nicknamed “pig alley” by American soldiers during the war this street is the home of the red light district. Many may be more familiar with Moulan Rouge or Chat Noir. We skipped Moulan Rouge, though we did attend the Crazy Horse Cabaret closer to downtown. A classy and fun experience I will never forget, the Crazy Horse, is a must see for any one who might enjoy show.
Finally, yes, we toured the Champs de Mars and the Eiffel Tower. What can I say, the area is second to none. The Eiffel Tower began life as a monument at the world’s fair with no intention of staying erect. I am glad it was kept standing because there is no view of Paris quite like the one from the top of the tower. We waited outside in line, feeling exactly like the penguins on teh Nat Geo Blue Planet episode. Seriously, I have never, ever, been so cold in all my life. Groups of people huddled together and stood motionless waiting for the pain to subside. Once at the top, I snapped a few of my all time favorite pics.
The Arc du Triomphe was not accessible up close due to some police activity related to soccer hooligans. We did enjoy our stroll down the Champs Eleysee however. The bitter cold really never got in our way. Paris can do that to you, it can make your look past what might be in your way and help you focus on what’s actually in front of you.
Finally, Sacre Coeur. A magnificent church up on the hill in Mon Marte. Sacre Coeur began as a small pre Roman chapel. Slowly over millennia, she grew, burned down, and was rebuilt over and over until she stands as we see her today. Photos are not allowed inside but I have one from Pixabay I can share. We enjoyed a croc madam, a magic show on the street corner, and prepared for our night out on New Year’s Eve.
My wife, the amazing woman that she is, booked a very expensive night out for New Year’s Eve. We donned our finest attire, layered our winter gear, and headed out to the docks. It seems we were to travel by boat this evening. I was not prepared for what she had prepared. Once aboard a flat glass roofed river boat, I was amazed. A 7 course, 5 star dinner, complete with personal sommalier, was being prepared as I sat. The boat cruised up and down the Seine passing the Eifferl Towe, lit in regal purple, just around midnight. Our crew provided masks and noise makers along with true champagne as the Eiffel Tower exploded in millions of strobe lights to ring in 2009. I will never forget that evening, it was a highlight of my days abroad.
We returned to our humble, and free, house swap flat. Tired, happy, and hopeful that somehow our flight would never arrive, we fell fast asleep. As all parties do, our time in Paris came to an end and we returned home to New York. Experiencing the candle stained stone of Notre Dame, gilded lifestyle of the historically wealthy, and street cafes of sweet Paris, has forever left me wanting more. I will return, I will. Next time, I will see Paris in the spring!