My hands were inside my jacket's pocket as I quickly followed my new friend through stairs and dark alleys. I was holding my Kodak camera to protect it from the unusual cold drizzle that was drenching the steep streets of Montmartre, and even though I had no idea where I was going, I felt an urging feeling of amazement just to follow a person I had met moments ago at the hostel.
"How come do you know your way around here?" I asked, pretty impressed by the way the Mexican guy, Pablo, naturally walked around the streets of Paris. He was checking his pocket map to see if our directions to the restaurant were correct.
"I walked around here this morning" he answered, setting off quickly after. As I began to get worried about my whereabouts, we arrived in a square. Simple, yet charmingly decorated, the little area was locked within the Montmartre neighborhood. There were several bars, and the few people around were either painters or waiters calling us to enter in their restaurant. The cold winter drizzle, along with the Christmas decoration and deserted alleys, formed a typical French scene, like the ones we only see on the movies. That was one of the most beautiful areas I've seen in Paris, and honestly, much more memorable than Champs-Élysées or any other touristic hotspot.
On the next morning, I woke up as the early winter sun hit my face through the bedroom's window. Pablo was already gone to explore the city alone, and the rest of the people in the smelly room were still sleeping. I grabbed my cheap breakfast, consisted of a single croissant, one glass of milk or coffee, and a bowl of cereal (French hostels could definitely get better on this), and headed off to the streets. It was my second day in Paris, and as organized as I was back then, I had everything written down on a notebook: All the attractions, the subway stations from one to the other, and their prices. I would start my day at the Military Museum (Musée de l'Armée), and later head off to the Louvre by subway, finishing up my day at the Notre Dame Cathedral, maybe ready to pick up something to eat near Saint Germain neighborhood. A typical touristic route around the cliché attractions. I was happy, of course, and headed on to the Museum to start my day.
This would be an awful and uncreative story if I simply had followed my schedule. I did go to the Military Museum that day, and it was definitely worth the experience, but my route changed as something hit me out of a sudden. The museum is my favorite in the city, and as a big fan of history, I had everything I wanted right there: Medieval Armors, Canons, WW I and WW II weapons, and even Napoleon's Tomb. To my surprise, at the exact day of my visit, a military ceremony was going on, with hundreds of officials and generals saluting and marching among hundreds of French flags.
I definitely spent more time than expected inside the museum, and according to my plans, I would have a short time to visit the Louvre. I quickly left the Museum in a rush to reach the subway as soon as I could. As I was crossing a wide grass area to reach the station, I looked left and stopped, I grabbed my glasses and put them on, just to make sure. Raising high, above the buildings was the tip of the Eiffel Tower, my first sight of it. No plans in the world were enough for me to simply ignore it. I turned left and started walking.
I walked for a long time, mostly because I had no idea where I was going, except for the only reference in front of me. I later found out that my route had no sense at all, and I more than doubled the time supposed to reach my final destination, but I have not a single feeling of regret, it was a memorable experience.
Just as I began walking, that Mexican guy came into my mind. "Why can't I simply walk around like him?" I silently asked myself inside my head. I had no need for an answer, as my feet already knew it. The walk might have been boring to some, but for me, it was a great way to feel the true Paris. I was often strolling around accompanied by locals and their dogs, sometimes trying out my French with an old lady here and there, asking for directions, and always looking up for the Eiffel Tower as I kept walking. I also passed and visited some small business around the neighborhood, often receiving strange looks from the locals, who were probably wondering what a tourist was doing there. I was suddenly more happy than before, not even caring about the Louvre or what time it was. I felt the city for the first time that day.
Every single day after that random walk around what I later came to know as the 7th Arrondissement (out of the 20 that compose the city of Paris), I simply walked around town with no destination in my head. I got into the touristic spots, got to know them, and started heading places I knew nothing about. By doing that, I came to know the most incredible areas in the city, not for its content itself, but for its real life and real people. The 18th Arrondissement around Montmartre with its charming cafes; The 6th with the beautiful Pantheon and Paris' Law School; or even the popular 2nd, with its restaurants and interesting shops.
Paris can get extremely overwhelming, even during the low season, with millions of tourists packing the museums and attractions near downtown. If you are like me, a person who often hates crowded places and huge lines, the city can be a challenge, but if you are also willing to explore beyond the usual tracks, give it a shot and you won't regret it. Everyone falls in love with Paris in one way or another.