Last year’s horrific terrorist attacks in Paris, which resulted in the deaths of 130 people, hit me hard. Over half of the dead had been at the Bataclan, a rock club that I had attended on my last visit to the city to see the band Shellac. The performers on the night of the massacre were American—the Eagles of Death Metal, a band I’ve been a fan of for quite a few years. It’s not out of the question that I would have been at the club had I been in Paris on Nov. 13, 2015.
There were plenty of reports of plummeting tourism in the wake of the attacks, but to be honest, I would have gladly gotten on a plane to Paris on Nov. 14, 2015. The odds of being a victim of a random terrorist attack are small. To be honest, I was a lot more worried that I’d be hit by one of the thousands of bicycles speeding around Amsterdam than that I’d be killed by a terrorist while in Paris.
However, I did find that Paris had changed since my last, pre-attack visit. There were security guards everywhere, from museums to department stores, poking through bags and checking the insides of winter coats before we were allowed to enter; in some cases, we had to go through metal detectors as well. At the enormous Christmas market on the Champs-Élysées, guards with rifles kept an eye on the crowds. Municipal trash cans now consist of huge, clear bags, with the word VIGILANCE printed on them in big black letters.
Still, life goes on in Paris, a city where it’s nearly impossible to avoid crowds. We encountered few tourists during our off-season visit, but Parisians were flocking to the blockbuster Magritte show at the Pompidou (the wait to enter the gallery was an hour at one point, but we were able to waltz right in after we’d spent a couple hours browsing the rest of the museum) and the Oscar Wilde exhibition at the Petit Palais (we decided to skip this one, having had our fill of lines by that point). The narrow sidewalks of Le Marais overflowed with Christmas shoppers. And naturally, the cafés were busy with people eating, chatting, smoking and drinking (but never using their laptops).
We happened to visit during a pollution crisis brought on by exhaust fumes and stagnant air. To be honest, it didn’t seem all that bad to me, but the air in car-choked Paris definitely was not as fresh and clean as it was in bike-crazy Amsterdam. (Maybe the risk of being sideswiped by a bike is a small price to pay?) We did get free Metro and bus rides for three days, which was pretty nifty.
When the crowds got to be too much, I decided to visit one of the quietest corners of the city: Père Lachaise, the famous cemetery that is the final resting place of Wilde, Chopin, Edith Piaf and many other luminaries. The “most visited cemetery in the world,” according to Wikipedia, was almost hauntingly quiet on the bright, sunny afternoon I spent there. Even 60s icon Jim Morrison’s grave only had a half-dozen visitors paying tribute. With its many phone-booth-sized monuments, elaborate sculptures and winding paths, Père Lachaise is unlike any graveyard I’d ever seen. I did the walking tour in Rick Steves’ Paris guidebook, which hits most of the highlights and provides careful directions; otherwise, you’re likely to stumble around for hours searching for Gertrude Stein and Colette.
After my solitary trip to the cemetery, I felt reenergized and ready to rejoin the living. One of my anxieties about visiting Paris is that restaurants usually want you to make a reservation, but that can be intimidating for those not fluent in French. Well, now there’s an app for that: The Fork, which provides easy access to tons of restaurants, along with links to reviews from parent company TripAdvisor. (I also used ZenChef, another online reservation service.) We were able to find lots of places with same-day availability (I can never bring myself to plan too far ahead when I travel), including the wonderful Les Antiquaires, a restaurant just across the Seine from the Louvre. The food was delicious, the service genuinely friendly, and the prices very reasonable.
For more places to escape the crowds, I recommend the book Quiet Corners of Paris. And never be afraid to visit this endlessly fascinating, resilient, beautiful city.