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Where To Pick a Flower in Paris: Public Restrooms
Imagine the era of the early 1800's, picturesque chateau Versailles, refined, elegant ladies of the court who had to um, tinkle, would proffer a polite phrase to let their ladies in waiting know - "I am going to go pick a flower". Rustles of dresses would hasten to the said lady to assist her in "picking a flower". They would go to a private spot in the garden and form a circle around their lady (much like a wagon circle) whilst she squatted in a special pot for that purpose.
What do the French do now when they want to "pick a flower"? Well, they wait until they get home. That is what my French husband told me. The French hold it. Period. They also don't drink water throughout the day and are generally a very parched group.
Since living in Paris for 2 years, I have broken every water/toilet rule: carrying my own bottle of Evian and taking huge gulps while envious Franco-phones gasp on metros, streets and rues, I have used the toilets of friends that I was visiting (this is a big French non-non) and I have done my duty outside of my own four walls. The fact is that I always have to pee, and this is why I am writing these words of advice, "Where to pick a flower in Paris".
First I should establish that a "bathroom" definitely does NOT have a toilet in it. Toilets are to be found in Toilettes or W.C. (stands for Water Closet, pronounced "vay say"). Don't confuse lavabo, which means washbasin, with lavatory. On to the types of toilets that you will encounter.
French toilets in bars are still often the hole-in-the-ground squatting variety (Turkish Toilet), and tend to lack toilet paper. Standards of cleanliness aren't always high. A Turkish toilet is very simply a hole in the floor with two raised platforms for your feet. Until 1970, Turkish toilets were what you got in almost all Parisian cafes. You lack any kind of comfort in these toilets. However, I suppose this is how nature meant it to be. It's much more hygienic than normal toilets where everyone has peed all around it. And it's a great balance and leg workout. Be careful when you flush these toilets since they spray water all over the place. Side note: Almost all rest-stops along the French highways are these squatters, unless the road stop has a store or restaurant.
Pay toilets, yes, it's part of understanding and accepting foreign cultures, and lets face it, haven't there been times that you would have paid anything to use a toilet? These beige- or brown-colored space age boxes have automatic doors which open when you insert coins, (40 centimes at time of writing) and are cleaned automatically once you exit. You've only got 15 minutes so don't dilly-dally. And don't even think about trying to jump in after another paying customer; the toilet folds into the wall and the place is gassed with spray cleaners and deodorizers!
There is the mirror and the hand washing is a trip - like an automated carwash. First water comes out then soapy water then more water and then the dryer all from the same spout. Out of service is "hors service" just in case you find one that says that highlighted in red, you will have to hold it just a while longer.
Pay Toilet on a street in Paris.
Some pay toilets are disguised as Marques. My favorite is at Metro stop Jussieu on the line 10 which is a good stop for going to the Arabic Institute, the gardens of Luxembourg and the Paris Mosquee. If you forget to have 40 centimes in change, no worries there is a newspaper stand right there that will give you change. It's half the size of the normal cabins, but not half the price. You can see a photo of this style public toilet on this site: Virtual Tourist - GUYON's Paris Page
Toilets in Cafes
Paying for cafe toilets or not paying - that is the question! Out of politeness you should buy a water or a coffee at a cafe and then ask the bartender for the token for the toilets (which are usually located downstairs by the payphones). This said, every cafe has toilets and now that you know where they are, sometimes you can use 20 centimes instead of the token. Or you can wait for someone to come out and lunge at the door. Just speaking from experience.
Toilets in Fast Food Restaurants
You will see that my old American habits die hard when I tell you that I go to McDonalds to pee (but not to eat). If you are visiting busy fast food restaurants, SAVE YOUR RECEIPT; it usually contains a code to get into the restroom there. If you don't have the code, you can also find the bathroom and wait for someone to exit.
Free Public Toilets
Where are the free toilets you ask? Here are some places where you will find them:
Toilets in railway stations and department stores are commonly staffed by attendants who will expect a bit of spare change.
Touring Paris with Stops at Restrooms
Here are some stops that I have hit as a tour guide around town. I know that you will want to see these sights and you might just have to use the toilets! So here they are with a little flourish of history. Think of it as Johns of Paris; Loos that I have seen; or Les Pipis of Paris.
This 12,000 piece iron Erector was set masterminded by Gustave Eiffel, who was known for his revolutionary bridge building techniques, and worked on the vast viaduct at Garabit in 1884. (Did you know that if you hear phrases about water like rushing rivers, dripping drains, and flowing fountains it's a reflex to make you want to pee?) You have tuned out the tour guide and are looking at the Eiffel tower from Trocadero (that means that you have your back to the Seine river). The restroom is on the left hand side in between the two legs, no pun intended.
Trocadero is home to Museum of Man (closed on Tuesdays), Musee Clemenceau (closed Sundays and Mondays) and probably the best view of the Eiffel tower and really nice old wood. There are free restrooms at the metro exit (closed at 7pm or whenever Madame Pipi decides to hit the road). There are also free restrooms at the Chatelet metro, but I would not advise it, since that is the largest metro stop in all of Europe and the toilets are such an odd spot that it took me two years to find them. Imagine how bad I had to go then!
Notre-Dame Cathedral is the famed medieval sanctuary which stands on Ile de la Cite, the ancient birthplace of Paris. The cathedral was begun in the mid-12th century on the site of several previous churches and was completed two centuries later. Its majestic facade (with its three doorways and rose window), spacious nave, and elegant flying buttresses make Notre-Dame the archetype of Gothic religious architecture. But, with all this inspiration, I gotta pee - the restroom is outside near some bushes (really) closest to the Seine and downstairs; follow the blue and white WC signs. God Speed.
The Sacre-Coeur basilica was built at the end of the 19th century at the top of the Montmartre hill in Paris. Its famous white pastry architecture (a special stone that gets whiter with age) dominates the city. Toilets are at the bottom of Sacre Coeur, (bottom of the building, not bottom of the hill) on the right. Careful Madame Pipi who is waiting for her 50 cent tip (she charges more for number two) is not very nice; it's a good thing to pretend to not understand French around her! You can also take the back steps down to the village from here and avoid the shady string salesmen next to the carousel at the way bottom of the hill.
Avenue des Champs-Elysees, famous and chic boulevard used for military parades on Bastille Day (14 July), is the finish line for Tour de France cycling competition. This is a no-brainer; there are at least three McDonalds and two Quick burgers on the famous avenue. You can use their restrooms and spend all day pee-free on the Elysees.
Georges Pompidou Center
The Georges Pompidou center has free toilets at both the entrance level and in the BIP library on the third floor. You don't have to pay to get into the Pompidou Centre since the toilets are located in the entrance area. They are nice sit-down ones. Metrostop for is the Georges Pompidou center is Rambuteau.
Hotel des Invalides
Napoleon's tomb (pay to enter, dead men take money but don't need toilets so you have to go outside) lies in marvelous crypt beneath dazzling gold gilt dome; acid rain is gradually eating the gold off the dome, all 10 tons of it. Invalides has always been military complex and houses the Army Museum. This is where the restrooms are - along the outside corridor. Esplanade des Invalides extends to Seine and Alexander II Bridge.
Jardin des Tuileries
This is a French-style park full of statues and pools. The restrooms are in the corner of the park, near the rue de Rivoli, closest to place de la Concorde.
Latin Quarter (Quartier Latin)
This is a youthful, animated neighborhood around Sorbonne, centre of University of Paris, and founded in 13th century. It was named the Latin Quarter because Latin was the language of instruction until French Revolution, not because of any influx of great Mexican restaurants (there is one that I have heard is not great). Speaking of which you will have to go to a cafe or restaurant in this neighborhood to find a decent toilet. There are so many great restaurants and the nightlife is fun so this is a very good excuse to try them all out.
The Carrousel du Louvre
The underground shopping mall below the Louvre pyramid is a great spot. It has great air-conditioning, a Virgin Megastore, shops, food court, post office and toilets. (Internet is in the back of the Tourist Office - one euro for 15 minutes.) You will find the toilets near the entrance to the metro station and also downstairs near the car park entrance. You don't have to pay to go the Louvre in order to use their restrooms; they are inside on the second floor (French 1st floor) near the four winged entrances.
The Pantheon is the burial place of some of France's most distinguished authors, politicians, scientists, philosophers, etc. There is no where to pee here, unless you are a renowned scholar. Just kidding, there is a restroom downstairs, but you have to pay to get into the Pantheon. I feel weird peeing just meters from Hugo's headstone.
Jardin/Palais du Luxembourg - (Luxembourg Gardens and Palace)
These vast gardens, a popular meeting place for Parisians of all ages. The 17th-century palace is seat of the French Senate. In 1617 Marie de Medicis asked the help of Boyeau de la Barraudiere to create the garden. It was not before 1820 that the garden was opened to the public, under the reign of Louis XVIII. This garden gives the feeling of greatness and prestige. A bandstand and a roundabout with wooden horses were inherited from the 19th Century (you have to pay to enter that part of the garden). Have a rest in the shadow of chestnut trees, plane trees, and lime trees and watch the young, strong, handsome French Police trainees jogging around the walk in their short blue shorts ... oh, and it is 40 cents for toilets.
The American Express Office
Amex not only has credit cards, travelers checks and insurance, they also have excellent public toilets! Their office is at 11, rue Scribe, near the Opera metro station and Auber RER station.
This concludes my guided tour of "Where to Piss in Paris". Until the GPS toilet system is created in Paris, you will just have to hold it, just like 50 million other French people. Now, where are my ladies in waiting? I really NEED to go pick a flower!
www.mairie1.paris.fr: The Paris City Hall (mairie) website. They have special hours for certain sanisettes (the outdoor public toilets) to be free for limited times. The site is in French, but you can get the idea and locations.
Anthony Atkielski - How to Use a Sanisette: Photo and description of a public toilet.
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