Digital writer Megan Murray thought that her memories of Paris were forever destined to remind her of an old boyfriend, until she reclaimed the city for herself.
Like many a young romantic, I had always dreamed of going to Paris. And the first time I did, the trip started out exactly how I’d always imagined.
One day, out of the blue, my French boyfriend showed me a picture of a beautiful garden. There was an ornate water fountain in the middle, surrounded by delicately manicured flower beds. Dappled sunlight fell through the overarching trees and people sat on curled, iron seats enjoying the scene around them.
He said he wanted to take me there, to which I replied: “it’s beautiful – is it in Oxford? Cambridge?” But he insisted on keeping the location a secret, assuring me I’d find out nearer the time.
As it turns out, the Jardin du Luxembourg is in the sixth arrondissmont of Paris, a fact I learned just a few days before we took our flight for the trip he had planned and arranged all by himself.
A gorgeous French boyfriend, whisking me off on a surprise trip to Paris in the height of summer? Could there be a luckier woman on the globe?
But although it was undoubtedly a lovely thing to do, the dramatic nature of his gesture was symptomatic of our relationship – as much as we were sky high in the clouds one minute, we were at each other’s throats arguing the next.
Throughout the trip, although some moments were everything I’d hoped for (cheese and wine in the gardens of the Eiffel Tower, Sunday strolls down the Canal Saint Martin), much of it was lost in an angry, buzzing haze of arguments, jealousy and bickering which followed us around like a swarm of hornets.
With each sting, my hopes for the trip got smaller and smaller. Our itinerary became redundant and we ended up sitting outside naff cafes in the kind of silences that sink down your throat and choke you. A resolution feeling further away with each passing minute.
I came back disappointed. I’d seen tourist attractions I’d always dreamed of visiting, but I’d missed out on exploring a city in the way I really like. Instead of wandering the streets, stumbling across hidden gems and lingering in the boutiques or galleries, it felt stunted.
It turns out the trip was a forewarning for the fate of our relationship. Despite making me dazzled and starry-eyed at the beginning, and treating me to romantic gestures like the trip to Paris, his need to be my everything and have all of my attention, all of the time, left me feeling drained. Even worse, the frightening regularity with which he would challenge how I felt about him and fly well and truly off the hanger sometimes left me feeling a bit scared.
After months of painful picking at the scab of our relationship, we finally stopped speaking for good and I thought that Paris was somewhere I would never want to go again. My ex is from near Paris, which made the idea of being surrounded by a whole city of people that sounded like him feel utterly overwhelming, and going back to a place that so potently reminded me of ‘us’ felt impossible.
Then my dad announced that Paris was the very place he wanted to go over his next birthday weekend. I felt myself tense up immediately at the suggestion. But considering how much I love my dad and that a 20-year long battle with alcoholism (he’s now four years sober, which is great) had robbed him of not only often a roof over his head, a career and lots of friends – but also the chance to visit one of the most beautiful cities on earth – I decided to give him a resounding oui, and count myself in.
Obviously, revisiting The City of Lights with my old man was very different to going with my boyfriend. To be honest, it was a lot better. The trip flowed effortlessly as we wandered from the hipster area of Belleville down through different layers of neighbourhoods, eventually reaching the Notre Dame (a sad thought now after the devastating fire) and the Seine as the sky turned pink. Moments seemed to click perfectly into place as if pre-destined, like when we walked into the Sacre Coeur and my dad (a devout catholic) whispered how magical it would be to have Holy Communion there and voila, within seconds the priest started an enchanting service. Standing there, listening to prayers being sung in French and seeing the mystified look on my dad’s face is something I will never forget.
But I still wasn’t able to see the city as I wanted to. As he had never been before, we went back to all of the monuments that I had already seen. We sat by the Seine, which I had already done. We walked the Champs Elysees in the June heat, pushing past other tourists, and although I was having a lovely time, I would have much rather have discovered something new.
So, fast forward another four months to October, and I found myself booking yet another ticket to Paris. But this time, it was just for one.
It had been a good eight months since my break-up, and after seeing the city with two important men in my life, I knew it was time to reclaim it for myself. It was time to take my first solo travel trip.
The benefits of spending time alone, both emotionally and physically, have been talked about a lot recently. The empowering ability to enjoy your own company is a rising sociological trend, and has been discussed in books such as What a Time to be Alone by Chidera Eggerue and How To Be Alone by Sara Maitland.
And further to mastering the practise of having dinner alone or enjoying a night in while the rest of the world seems to be fizzing with fun outside your door, travelling solo has its own specific benefits, which explains why a growing movement of women are exploring the world alone, building independence, resilience and getting some much-needed headspace.
For example, flying solo means you come face-to-face with your inner sense of grit; a quality that is blurred by the secure social structures of everyday life.
“We’re drawn to identity-markers and to groups that help us define ourselves,” says Matthew Bowker, a psychoanalytic theorist and solitude researcher. “In the simplest terms, this means using others to fill out our identities, rather than relying on something internal, something that comes from within.”
People, he tells The Atlantic, need to have “the ability to know that you’re going to survive, that you’re going to be okay if you’re not supported by this group”.
And it’s this exact spirit that I harnessed as I emerged from the Gare du Nord on a sunny Saturday morning, tapping my chic boutique hotel’s address into Google Maps and setting across the city by foot (dragging a suitcase behind me) with no one to rely on but myself.
The mission: to do Paris on my own terms. To abide by my every whim, see all the sights that were special to me, visit the shops I’d been fawning over on Instagram for months and eat, drink and sleep whenever the fancy took me.
I stayed in the city for four days, and I learned a lot. Here are my three most memorable moments in Paris alone, and my recommendations for what to do if you want take the city by yourself, too.
Visit the Palace of Versailles
Okay, after moaning about visiting tourist spots this may sound like an odd – and potentially basic – choice. But hear me out.
I arrived on my first day in Paris at 9am, but by the time I had walked to my hotel (a hefty hour’s stomp), checked in, eaten and treated myself to a freestanding bath in the middle of the day (because why not?) it occurred to me that 3pm may be a little late to set off to the Palace. And then I remembered that I could do whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted.
The train journey is about an hour from Paris and the scenery from your carriage’s window is a pretty glimpse into life outside the city. Take a book you’ve been dying to read with you and enjoy the peace and quiet.
It might be crammed with other sightseers, but it’s really quite humbling to stand in the presence of a building quite as majestic as this, and wandering through the many rooms at your own pace will give you the chance to look over every detail as you please.
Not only this, but the building and gardens stay open until 8pm, which means you can stay there to watch the sun go down, picking yourself up some pastries from the on-site bakery for a picnic.
Buy yourself a book from Ofr bookshop
I first learned about this infamous bookshop in Yasmin Zeinab’s fabulous book, Sundays in Paris, in which she describes it as an iconic mix of gallery, boutique and purveyor of artsy tomes. I was immediately hooked and hell bent on visiting.
It sits on the edge of the gorgeous, fashion-focused area of Le Marais where people watching has never felt more like being on the FROW.
Inside, fabulous people self-consciously pick their way through books written by models and designers and the whole thing feels deliciously pretentious but also very Parisian. If you’re like me and just adore the act of buying beautiful books, treat yourself to one here as a forever momento of your trip.
Have coffee outside Café de Flore
Known as one of Saint-German’s most famous cafes, and utterly Parisian in style, this is the place to sit outside and watch the world go by.
The floral displays that cover the façade couldn’t be more Instagram-worthy, so make sure you take a few snaps to remind yourself of how fancy you once were sitting alongside the crème de la crème of Parisians.
Little tip: the menu is quite pricey here, so you might want to grab a baguette from a boulangerie afterwards and make this more of a coffee stop. Talking of coffee though, I recommend doing it like the French and requesting cream instead of milk: it’s a treat you definitely deserve.
If you feel inspired to take a trip to Paris by yourself, I’ve written a city guide from my weekend antics, full of more ideas on what to eat, where to stay and what to do. Enjoy!
Images: Getty / Instagram