Guest blogger Chris Sanders describes discovering more of Paris off-the-beaten path, and re-visiting some of the jewels Paris is known for. Merci, Chris!
To celebrate our fifth wedding anniversary, my wife Wendy and I recently spent five days in Paris – a duration much too short if you ask us, but we made the most of our “mini vacation” and had a wonderful experience! As we looked at the itinerary we sketched out in advance, a logical theme emerged for the trip “On and Off the beaten path.” In the on the beaten path category were a few of the classics that represented some of the more mainstream “must do’s” in Paris. In the off the beaten path category were a few new adventures and twists on the old classics.
Below is a brief write up of each day followed by links to relevant places we visited. We welcome your comments and hope you enjoy reading about our experience. Oh, one more thing- we apologize in advance for any mis-spellings of French words…it’s not always easy to toggle between the French and US keyboards.
Chris and Wendy in front of Louvre
Day 1- Paris chocolate tour and a couple of cool wine bars
Day 2- Musée d’Orsay, Sacre Coeur, and a traditional zinc wine bar
Day 3- Musée du Louvre, Canal St. Martin, and a classic Parisian steak dinner
Day 4- Bicycle tour of Versailles, period!
Day 5 – Café Angelina (twice!), Les Puces, and shopping in St. Germain des Prés
Day 1- Paris chocolate tour and a couple of cool wine bars
Day one of our trip began with a touch down at CDG, a ride to l’Etoile in Les Cars (the Air France Bus) and a short taxi ride to the Westin Vendôme. The Westin is a wonderfully situated property adjacent to the Tuileries park and within walking distance of Musée d’Orsay, Le Louvre and many other points of interest. After checking in and freshening up a bit, we were off to our first adventure – a chocolate sampling walking tour which took place in the St. Germain des Prés area. We pre-booked the tour through Viator.
Our adventure started at La Mason du Chocolate where we met up with the guide (a quintessentially French man named Yves) and (much to our surprise) another American couple from Atlanta! For the next three hours the four of us eagerly followed Yves to five chocolate boutiques where he enlightened us on the history of chocolate and described each boutique’s specialty.
Chocolate is no stranger to Paris, but the last decade has observed an explosion of chocolate artisans and product variety as well as a renewed focus on origin of ingredients and quality. The trend reminded us of what we saw with coffee in the US – I used to order “a cup of coffee”, now I order “dark roasted Guatemala Antigua with room for skim milk please.” Anyway, the tour was both educational and delicious – highly recommended. Each tour will be different as there are dozens of chocolate boutiques in Paris – here are the places we visited:
- La Maison du Chocolat- an institution in Paris; memorable samples were the Garrigue (flavored with fennel seeds), Cannelle (flavored with cinnamon) and of course, their famous chocolate éclair- the chocolate was rich and creamy- oh la la!
- Pierre Hermes- one of our two favorites on the tour- known for macaroons, Pierre Hermes began work at the age of fourteen for Ladurée (the venerated Champs Elysee Macaroon joint) before striking off on his own. People line up outside of his place to buy macaroons and chocolate – our favorite flavors were chocolate, rose, and the house specialty- passion fruit!
- Pierre Marcolini- a famous Belgian chocolatier- our favorite was a piece called the “quatre épices” (four spices)- it is difficult to balance the spices with the chocolate flavors yet Marcolini pulls this off beautifully…no one flavor dominates and all work in harmony.
- Un Dimanche à Paris(a Sunday in Paris) - another favorite of ours on the tour – Paris’s first “chocolate concept store” opened a few months ago to rave reviews. The store is combined with a restaurant wherein chocolate is incorporated into the dishes. We sampled the chocolate truffles (divine) and several chocolate covered cooking ingredients including coriander and rosemary. We also sat down to a cup of chocolat chaud that rivaled the famed Café Angelina (no joke!).
- Patrick Roger- an interesting artesian who appears to specialize in moreunique flavor combinations and who pays very close attention to origin; we sampled chocolates made from Cuban beans, a Guinness infused chocolate, and a piece that had a giant raisin on top…all good and interesting combinations.
The chocolate tour lasted three hours and afterwards we were in need of a café for a drink (or two). We found the perfect café called La Palette, situated on the corner of a quiet street- we snagged an outdoor table in the last of the afternoon sun. La Palette is not a wine bar per se but a café with an excellent (albeit small) wine selection of five reds and five whites. Wendy and I settled for a couple of glasses of Saint Veran – a dry chardonnay from southern Burgundy…excellent!
After La Palette, we made our way a short distance to a hidden gem of a wine bar called La Crémerie, so named because the space used to be a creamery. Today it is a wine bar/wine shop/restaurant that serves organic wines, cheeses, and charcuterie from France and Spain. One can purchase a bottle of wine to leave with, pay a cork fee and drink it on the premises, or enjoy wines by the glass. What makes this place so special is it feels more like a labor of love than a place of business. The space is tiny with room for a few tables and – literally – about twelve people. It is rustic with a small wood bar with cured meats hanging overhead…each of the side walls of the place are lined with shelves of wine bottles…and a few small wooden tables are stuffed in between. We sensed the place had changed little in the past hundred years or so.
La Cremerie Wine Bar
We started with a fun glass of Coteaux Champenois- a light and fruity, slightly sweet red wine from the Champaign region. The waiter described the wine as the “joke of Champaign” in reference to its relative obscurity compared to the more famous sparkling wine from the region. We thought it was a delicious joke!
At La Crémerie, patrons are obliged to purchase something to eat (this has to do with the type of license they have)- but fear not, the food is excellent. We settled for plates of saucisson (cured salami-like sausage) and chèvre served with an apricot preserve and bread- yummy! The plates were so big we counted the meal as our dinner. We washed it all down with a couple of glasses of Bourgeil from the Loire Valley before heading out so as to make room for the people who had reserved our table for dinner. We will definitely go back to La Crémerie!
Day 2- Musée d’Orsay, Sacre Coeur, and a traditional zinc wine bar
Day two was a day on the beaten path for sure with two Paris classics- Musée d’Orsay and Sacre Coeur. We started in the morning at Musée d’Orsay, which was a short walk through Tuileries park and over the river Seine. The sun was shining and people were already congregating in the park with a bright blue sky overhead. The tulips were in full bloom- rows of yellows, reds, and oranges covered the park- amazing!
View of Musee d’Orsay from Tuileries Park
For those who may not be familiar with Musée d’Orsay, it’s the fantastic museum situated on the left bank of the Seine and housed an old converted railway station. The building itself is stunning – a big open space with two gargantuan clocks on either side. This museum- much more so than the Louvre – is easy to navigate and the works are relatively easier to digest in my view – perhaps since they include so many of the textbook icons we all grew up with…people like Van Gogh, Monet, Manet, Renoir, Whistler, Gauguin, Cezanne, Degas…need I continue?
Art appreciation is a matter of personal preference of course- some of the works we most enjoyed were: Monet’s Rouen Cathedral series (a collection of paintings of the cathedral façade at different times of the day), Toulouse-Lautrec’s works depicting colorful theatre and caberet life, and Van Gogh’s The Church in Auvers-sur-Oise (something about the dark blue sky really caught our attention). We spent a solid two hours at Musée d’Orsay, which we felt was sufficient for the paintings…we did not explore much of the second floor which is devoted to sculptural works.
Coming out of Musée d’Orsay we were tired and hungry. We hopped on the metro and headed north to the Montemarnte area, exiting at metro stop Abessess- which film lovers might remember as the site of a scene from Amelie.
Outside of Abbesses metro station
The Montmartre area is “famous” for several reasons: 1) it is the area where St Denis (patron saint of France) was believed to have been martyred, 2) it was an artist’s / bohemian haven attracting notables such as Van Gogh, Renoir, Toulouse-Lautrec, Degas, and Matisse, 3) it is the location for the city’s red light district as well as its two famous caberet’s (Moulin Rouge and Le Chat Noir), 4) it’s the setting for several famous French films including Amelie, and 5) it’s the location of Sacre Coeur Basilica – a large Catholic Church which occupies the summit of Montmartre…Sacre Coeur was our focus on this day.
Though we were searching for Sacre Coeur, our immediate need was for food! We stopped for a short lunch at a café called Le Relais Gascon – one of the many cafés on Rue des Abessess. We were compelled to dine there after noticing people outside eating gigantic salads topped with what appeared to be thinly sliced fried potatoes- everyone had a salad, so we speculated it would be good. Wendy and I both ordered a Salad du Bérnais, which included butter leaf lettuce, bacon, warm goat cheese, tomatoes and garlic fried potatoes….my idea of a salad! We complimented the meal with a carafe of rosé wine- perfect for the warm sunny day.
We continued our leisurely stroll towards Sacre Coeur, stopping a few times to browse boutiques. After a short while, we reached the starting point of the climb- looking up at the massive church perched on the summit of the steep hill we thought to ourselves “that’s a lot of steps!” – suddenly we wished we hadn’t eaten so much for lunch!
For those not familiar, Sacre Coeur (or more properly Basilique du Sacré-Cœur Paris- or Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Paris)is an amazing site. First, the church occupies the highest point in Paris- which is impressive enough. Second, the architecture is a marvel unto itself…I don’t know the proper technical words to describe the style- the best I can do is say it’s as if the Kremlin met the Taj Mahal – their child would be Sacre Cœur !
Base of Sacre Coeur
The sky was blue, the temperature warm and the hill was alive with people sunbathing and picnicking – it was the perfect day for a pilgrimage of sorts and the climb reminded us of the Croagh Patrick we did in Ireland a few years back– the famous pilgrimage of St. Patrick.
After much huffing and puffing and navigating the sunbathers, pick-nickers, school groups and even a musical band, we finally reached the entrance to the church. Resting for a few minutes, we took in the wonderful panoramic view of Paris below- incroyable!
Inside we circumnavigated the sanctuary, stopping to pray for a while in the adoration chapel and again in pews opposite the alter. In the main part of the church, we were treated to a typical French scene… an older man was sitting in a pew a few rows in front of us and explaining the architecture to his grand-daughter…he wasn’t speaking loud but it was a little distracting. A woman sitting a few pews up from the man– clearly annoyed – got up, walked over to the man and asked him to lower his voice… a small arguement ensued after which the man continued describing the features of the church to his grand-daughter in a defiantly and somewhat louder voice than before. Wendy and I began to laugh quietly and decided the contemplative time was over- it was time to hike back down to sea level and try another wine bar.
Le Rubis wine bar was described in the blogasphere as « a traditional zinc wine bar »- we had no idea what this meant until we stumbled into the place and discovered a veritable throw back to the 1930s. Le Rubis had a real local diner feel – a long narrow space with a row of tables along one wall and a long zinc colored metal bar occupying most of the other side. At the time we arrived (probably 6:30 or so) we were practically the only patrons, which meant we could grab a table. We ordered first a glass of Beaujolais Village followed by a glass of Cotes de Brouilly (this place specializedin beaujolais but the glasses were tiny) – in between sips we nibbled away at a gigantic plate of bread and cheese. By the time we asked for l’addition an hour later, Le Rubis was standing room only with people spilling out of the entrance. Loyal patrons not able to secure a table inside huddled around a few wine barrells-turned-cocktail-tables on the sidewalk in front. It appeared to be a very typical early evening scene and people of all types were socializing.
Le Rubis Wine Bar
Exhausted after a day of impressionists and climbing montmarntre, we decided to have dinner at Chez Flottes, a trendy restaurant near our hotel. I had the poulet roti (which made Gourmet Magazine’s and Le Figaro’s list of the best places to have roasted chicken in Paris) while Wendy indulged in sauteed shrimp. The star of the show however was the bottle of Burgundy we enjoyed – a 2007 Maranges 1 Cru La Fussiere- delightful! A good Burgundy for ~$100 is non existent in US restaurants – we thought it was the perfect end to a perfect day.
Day 3- Musée du Louvre, Canal St. Martin, and a classic Parisian steak dinner
We decided to get an early start on day three since our first adventure was Musée du Louvre
- arguably the most famous (and perhaps daunting) museum on planet Earth! We completed the short walk from the hotel to I.M. Pei’s giant glass pyramid in less than 15 minutes (I just love the fact that the iconic entrance to the world most famous museum was designed by an American!). We arrived before 9:30 and were surprised to find no line at all. We entered and bought our tickets so fast we decided to have a quick café creme and pain au chocolat in the museum’s café before exploring.
The Louvre is huge and easily takes a few solid days to effectively navigate. It is laid out in three expansive wings: Denon, Richelieu, and Sully. The Denon wing houses the Mona Lisa and so we started there. Our strategy was simple- make a bee line for the Mona Lisa first in order to beat the crowds…then make our way back through the rest of the wing at a leisurely pace- the strategy worked rather well.
After several minutes of twists and turns, ups and downs, we arrived in the hall where DaVinci’s masterpiece hung. The Mona Lisa is much smaller than you would expect – it hangs by itself on a large wall. There was already a small but manageable crowd of people admiring the work. While we found the Mona Lisa interesting, we found even more interesting the humungous work hanging on the opposite wall of the room- The Wedding at Cana by Veronese. The shear size is amazing– but our first thought was “this is not the Cana I imagined.” The audio guide explained the painting was commissioned in Venice and so the feast was constructed to look like it took part in Venice.
Wedding at Cana in Louvre
We continued our odyssey through the museum appreciating several works. Among the more interesting were those commissioned by Napoleon to depict scenes that either never took place or were grossly exaggerated. Case in point the Coronation of Napoleon in which the emperor’s mother occupies a central place in the scene yet she was not actually present at the event. Another exaggeration can be found in Bonaparte Visiting the Victims of Jaffa in which he is portrayed almost Christ-like, visiting soldiers who had contracted the bubonic plague during the Egyptian campaign…at one point reaching out and actually touching a sick man…probably did not happen this way…we found out the painting was commissioned in part to combat accusations Napoleon had sought to kill the ill soldiers.
Winding down our three hour tour of the Denon wing, we decided it was time to wrap up our visit to the Louvre – but not before a quick mission to the Richelieu wing to take a peak at two paintings by Vermeer- one of my all time favorite painters. I was introduced to Vermeer while living in The Netherlands as an undergraduate student. Since Vermeer painted so few works, it’s a treat to see one anywhere. We easily navigated Richelieu to the site of two gems: “The Lacemaker” and “The Astronomer.” With our mission accomplished it was time to exit.
Leaving the Louvre, we set out on our next adventure for the day- an off the beaten path exploration of Canal St. Martin – an up and coming area north of the Marais and east of Montmartre – named for the working canal that forms the centerpiece. After a metro ride to Republique and a short walk we arrived to the canal…our first impression was “wow, how did we get to Amsterdam?” Canal St. Martin is a picturesque area – the canal is long and wide and traversed by several arched iron bridges. Under a clear blue sky, the canal was lined on both sides by sunbathers and picnickers.
Canal St. Martin
Our first order of business was to find lunch. Our target was a pizza joint called Pink Flamingo that – according to the blogosphere – had developed a cult following. We searched high and low along the canal but could not find the place. I hadn’t noted the address since I read the place handed out pink balloons to patrons who wanted to eat by the canal (an aid to guide the delivery person)- we figured we would be able to simply follow the balloons. On this day we saw no pink balloons and assumed Pink Flamingo pizza might have gone out of business. Winding down a small street off the canal, we settled at a sidewalk brasserie. As we waited to order, Wendy asked “look across the street – is that a pink awning?” I turned around and sure enough I saw a pink awning – I could barely make out the name emblazoned on it “Pink Flamingo.” Before our waiter returned to take our order, we got up and made a bee line for the pizza joint!
Pink Flamingo Pizza is a small and very casual place where the patrons are eclectic, the music funky, the owners tattooed, and the pizza exceptional! We spoke with one of the owners – a French woman – and were surprised to find out her husband was from Boston. The two had opened Pink Flamingo seven years ago and during this time, it had become an institution in Canal St. Martin. I asked her about the lack of pink balloons today and she explained the balloons were in used by the bicycle delivery personnel..but deliveries didn’t start until the early evening…”later today, the entire canal will be filled with so many people and pink balloons – it’s really cool” she told us.
We ordered “La Marcello” which was a thin crusted pizza topped with arugula, balsamico, and parmesan cheese- very good and reminiscent of our life in Bologna, Italy several years ago. We sat at one of the few small tables outside and eavesdropped on a conversation between a Frenchman and a Belgian who were discussing a new internet business venture. We sat in the afternoon sun, eating Italian style pizza made by an American…on a tiny street in northern Paris…adjacent to a picturesque, straight-out-of- Amsterdam scene…yep, this was Canal St. Martin – we’ll definitely be back!
Another view of Canal St. Martin
After eating, we walked around the canal for a while- ducking into the occasional boutique. Before heading back to hotel, we stopped for a glass of wine at a hip café called Chez Prune. The place was packed but we were able to get a table inside near one of the big open windows, so we felt like we were outside. We were joined by the dog of one of the patrons- a lady who had a table outside in the sun and who explained her dog was friendly and simply wanted to lay on the cool tile floor…he sat under our table the whole time and he wasn’t a bother at all…yep, this is Paris!
Back at Hotel Westin, we showered and relaxed a bit before heading to our last adventure of the day- a steak dinner at Le Relais de Venice l’Entrecote. It’s difficult to categorized l’Entrecote (as the natives call it) as either off or on the beaten path- after all, it’s been around for fifty years…however, its location in Porte Maillot means you wouldn’t typically stumble into this place on an average day of site seeing. Anyway, many things make this place special and unique: they don’t take reservations (a rarity in Paris), they don’t have a menu- everyone gets the entrecote (steak and fries), they ask you how you want your steak cooked (you almost never get this choice in Paris!), and the service is fast (but you can stay as long as you like). Apparently, the location used to be an Italian restaurant (hence the name) but was purchased by a French man about fifty years ago. His motivation was to use the restaurant to develop a market for his family’s wine from the south of France…and given he had no restaurant experience, he wanted to keep the menu very simple…hence the one dish! Apparently, this concept has been successful as the family now has locations in NYC and London…but it all started in Paris.
We arrived by 7:30 to avoid the crowds and were seated at one of the coveted tables outside. We were immediately greeted by our waitress who was wearing the traditional black and white uniform. We ordered two medium steaks and a bottle of the house wine. A few minutes later our salads showed up…and about fifteen minutes after that the first installment of our steaks and fries arrived (yes they brought the dinner in two installments). The steak itself was on the thin side and but of good quality. The sauce that accompanied it was exceptional – I won’t even try to describe it- you must try it yourself. The fries are also really good- shoestring sized, crispy, and right out of the pan! We ate at a leisurely pace and enjoyed the house wine as we watched the last of the sun disappear and a line of eager patrons begin to form. After a short break, the second installment of the meal arrived – just as hot as the first! For dessert we had the profiteroles and were not disappointed. All in all, this was a great way to end day three.
Day 4- Bicycle tour of Versailles, period!
Day four was an all day adventure and a twist on the classic visit to Versailles. Wendy and I booked a tour with Fat Tire Bike Tours in Paris and arrived at their office near the Eiffel Tower at8:30am. Fat Tire is part of a small chain of bicycle tour companies with locations in several European cities. The office in Paris is run by a team of young Americans – many of whom studied European history in college.
We hung out in the small lobby while the rest of our group arrived. All in all we totaled about twelve people – a mix of couples and two families with children. The oldest in our group was a couple from Canada who appeared to be in their seventies. The youngest was the son of one of the couples – he was eight.
Our guide for the day was called “Peaches”, an awkward name considering the person was a tall man from Texas who recently graduated from UT Austin. As it turned out, his real name was the same as another Fat Tire guide and so both had adopted stage names to mix things up a bit. We all played along.
Peaches was awesome! Before we set out, he informed us of our itinerary and gave us critical cycling advice which – according to Peaches- could be boiled down to one word and one concept – DOMINATE! We were to stay together as a group and we were to DOMINATE at every chance, particularly where an automobile was concerned. Peaches told us Parisians were aggressive drivers but they were compelled to yield to cyclist…but we had to display total dominance of the road, defiance – and this would act as a signal for the automobile driver to back off. We tested this theory during the ten minute trek to the train station – as we approached an intersection, Peaches would yell “DOMINATE!”—those of us right behind Peaches would echo the yell “DOMINATE!” It all worked just as planned- the automobiles relented. The one caveat to the rule was scooters- they didn’t seem to yield to anyone or anything, including pedestrians!
Bike path at Versailles
At the station, Peaches instructed us to break into groups and spread out on the platform so when we got onto the train, we would not overload any one car. When the train arrived, we walked our bikes onto a car and secured them to a pole using one of the bungee cords supplied- pretty simple! The twenty minute ride to Versailles was through rather uninteresting scenery but we kept busy speaking to one of the young ladies from Fat Tire who had accompanied Peaches. Turns out she was from Oregon and had just graduated college where she studied French and European history…the job with Fat Tire was perfect as she could live in Paris, use her degree, and contemplate her next career move!
Versailles was the last stop on the route so we had plenty of time to exit the train. After a short walk to the front of the station we were again cycling through the streets- DOMINATING! Our first stop was a large open air market where we purchased provisions for our picnic later in the day. Wendy and I bought all the requisites: a baguette, three types of cheeses, dried salami, tangerines, a bottle of water and a bottle of wine. For the wine we selected a good Chinon from the Loire Valley. It was refreshing to see some many Chinons to choose from – in the US, we are pretty much confined to Charles Jouget. Interestingly enough, in the wine shop, we found out one of the other people on the tour grew up in Atlanta…more surprisingly, as a child she swam in the Garden Hills pool, which is literally a short walk to our house- small world indeed!
History lesson on the grounds of Versailles
With provisions strapped securely on to the back of my bike (in a wood crate we found at the market), we were off to start the tour. We cycled past the front of the palace and continued to a side garden entrance where we proceeded down a long sandy road lined on both sides by tall shade trees, traversing sheep pastures. Peaches told us in Marie Antoinette’s time, the sheep would have been dyed pink and wearing ribbons – no joke!
The tour continued at a leisure pace down several dirt paths- the weather was perfect – sunny and cool…and there were few people on the paths. We stopped outside of a moated area across which were several old stone buildings known as the Hameau de la Reine (or the Queen’s hamlet). The buildings were part of a small working farm Marie Antoinette had built for herself as a kind of escape from the court at Versailles. Peaches indicated the brick walled moat was a reminder to all who visited Versailles that the access to the Hameau was by invitation of the Queen only.
Our next stop was the Petit Trianon, a smaller palace originally built for the mistress of Louis XV…it was later given to Marie Antoinette by Louis VI for her use. As with the Hameau, the Petit Trianon was a place to which Marie Antoinette could escape the royal pressures of the court at Versailles. According to Peaches, she would use the Trianon as a place to perform the many outlandish plays she wrote.
We continued through the countryside gardens of the estate for some time stopping briefly to hear snippets of history. Finally, we reached the far end of the grand canal –a large stretch of water over a mile long. On one end was a small grassy area perfect for our picnic…at the opposite end was the grand palace at Versailles- a breath taking view! We parked our bikes and headed for the edge of the canal where we set up our picnic spread. Under a sunny blue sky and with Versailles in the distant, enjoyed our version of a traditional French picnic- it was all fantastic! We lounged around for a good hour, soaking up the sun and catching up with others in the group.
Picnic near the Grand Canal at Versailles
With stomachs full and energy replenished, we were eager to continue the last leg of the tour. We got on our bikes and began the ride back towards the palace, once again meandering through forested paths and dirt farming roads. At the palace, we locked up our bikes in a nearby park and walked to the entrance. Peaches gave us two hours to explore the palace, which he indicated would be more than sufficient…it was indeed.
The Palace at Versailles is laid out in a kind of giant U shape- you start at one end and move through a series of adjoining rooms until you come out come out the other end. Unfortunately, this means everyone visiting the palace is navigating the same path – traffic jams are common and annoying. We passed through many rooms and many hoards of people – the rooms started to look the same…two rooms that memorable for us were Marie Antoinette’s bedroom (which had a secret door through which she attempted to escape the angry protestors) and the Hall of Mirrors – a long room with windows on one side and mirrored arches on the other. The hall was used for court and other official occasions. More recently, the Hall of Mirrors served as the place where the Treaty of Versailles was signed, which ended WWI.
Palace at Versailles
After a good hour and a half of navigating the hoards, we were officially done with Versailles. We took in a few minutes of the famed gardens before heading back to the small park where we left our bikes. Our group reassembled and we peddled back through the small town to the train station. Back in Paris, we again DOMINATED the traffic on the quick ride back to Fat Tire where we returned our bikes and offered Peaches a small monetary donation they called a “love offering.”
Wendy and I were absolutely exhausted. We had completed a day long adventure at Versailles and we felt the day was complete. Back at Hotel Westin, we freshened up and then enjoyed a quick meal at a Chinese restaurant nearby…we were back and in bed asleep by9:00pm!
Day 5 – Café Angelina (twice!), Les Puces, and shopping in St. Germain des Prés
Having slept a good ten hours, we were ready to attack day five –our last in Paris! The morning started out with breakfast at Café Angelina, which was located adjacent to our hotel. The café is famous for hot chocolate but this morning we opted for café crème to accompany our mix of muffins and pastries. Now, before you admonish us for not getting the hot chocolate, read on…
Our first adventure of the day was a long metro ride to off the beaten path Porte de Clignancourt, which is about a far as one can go on the metro and the site of the largest flea market in the world- known as “Les Puces de Saint-Ouen.” Everything I read said “after exiting the metro, follow the crowds to Les Puces” and so that is what we did. We made our way down a busy street and through another open air market selling socks and purses…until we reached Les Puces.
The history of Les Puces goes back a few centuries to a time when “pickers” as they were called would rummage through garbage in Paris and pick out sellable junk and trinkets. These people set up stalls in the area around Clignancourt and overtime, the area grew in popularity, diversity and quality. Today, one can find just about anything from vintage postcards and magazine to antique paintings and furniture costing tens of thousands of dollars.
A small street at Les Puces
Les Puces is sprawling and laid out across a large area in a mix of warehouse type structures that house several booths and tiny winding streets that house tiny shops. We started on a street called Rue des Rosiers because it seemed to bisect the area- we could explore one half, then the other. We first made our way through one of the tiny winding streets – it felt like we were in an ancient little village – the streets were narrow and crowded. We stopped at several tiny shops including one that specialized in Limoges. For a few years now Wendy and I have been searching for a set of dessert plates that are inscribed with various chateaux from the Medoc region- they typically come in either dark brown or dark green. In this shop we were pleasantly surprised to find a large stack of such plates – but unfortunately they were all emblazoned with Ch. Montrose. I spoke to the proprietor in French and explained we were looking for a collection of several different chateaux – his response was to offer a lower price for the Montrose plates! We continued our hunt for these elusive plates and came up empty handed…we did get to see a ton of other stuff though…and we enjoyed lunch in a quaint sidewalk café. We vowed to return to Les Puces “for real” after we renovated our house in Atlanta!
Back on the metro we made our way to the center of Paris and some higher end shopping on St. Germain des Prés. Our first destination was more of a pilgrimage for Wendy really – to the flagship store of Furla in Paris. Furla is an Italian hand bag maker based in Bologna, Italy – Wendy was introduced to the brand when we lived in Bologna during my graduate studies at Hopkins. Furla makes high quality designs that are more classic and timely – not the flashy wares that cost a fortune and are out of style within a few months. I am surprised that Wendy does not know the employees at Furla Paris personally, since we’ve made the pilgrimage several times over the past few years! Inside, Wendy found nirvana with several new styles –I learned that passion fruit color was “in” this year. The good news for Wendy was the visit added three pieces to her collection…the good news for me was the purchase qualified for a VAT tax rebate!
Wendy in front of Furla
We continued our stroll through the area, past the famous Café Les Deux Magots and Café Flore and on towards Le Bon Marche – the famous department store in Paris. Along the way we stopped at the new flagship store of Hermes – not to buy anything of course – but to admire the architecture- the store was once the swimming pool of the venerated Hotel Lutetia … if you feel compelled to spend a few thousand dollars, yes, you can also buy a scarf!
Shopped out, we made our way back towards Hotel Westin but made a pit stop at Café Angelina for a second visit- this time, we treated ourselves to their famous chocolate chaud (hot chocolate). One of our good friends describes Angelina’s concoction as “God’s hot chocolate!” If you’ve never had it, you should try it- this is not Swiss Miss! It comes to your table in a small white porcelain picture, accompanied by a tiny bowl of real whipped cream. The chocolate is thick – it’s like pouring melted dark chocolate into your mug…after adding a dollop of cream and stirring, you take your first sip- wow, this stuff is intense and delicious! Though we were not hungry, our waiter jokingly reminded us that a healthy diet included five servings of fruit daily so we ordered a lemon tart…bottom line: “Café Angelina” = “God’s hot chocolate…and lemon tart!”
“God’s hot chocolate and lemon tart”
Later in the evening, we commuted to the location of our last dinner in Paris – at l’AOC near the Latin Quarter. The restaurant takes its name from the “appellation d’origine contrôlée” certification system in France, which governs labeling of certain foods with respect to geographic origin and quality standards. For example, in order to be labeled “Roquefort” a cheese must meet certain criteria such as “made from milk of certain sheep breeds”, and “contain mold that was produced in certain caves in the commune of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon.” The French like to know where their food comes from…and they like to protect their producers from counterfeiters.
Inside, l’AOC is a warm, friendly, and rustic place – it was also packed when we arrived but our reservation got us a great little table in the back near the wine cellar. We both had the poulet roti (roasted chicken), which was fantastic. We shared a nice bottle of Chinon from the Loire Valley, which was also delightful…all in all it was a wonderful last meal in Paris.
Back at Hotel Westin we packed our bags in preparation for an early morning departure. We had spent five great days in the City of Lights- five days exploring a mix of on the beaten path classics and off the beaten path adventures. And though we were exhausted and eager to return to Atlanta, we also could hardly wait to start planning our next trip to Paris!
I am sure the world does not need another writeup about Paris. But I think we all experience Paris differently so here is my take. It is such a unique place (as are other places like Venice, Rio, Istanbul, etc.) that I never get tired of visiting. At some point I will add to the endless writeups on Paris out there to share my favorite sights. Today, the everyday takes center stage…
Landing in Paris in 1999
I spent 6 months in Paris in 1999 on a work assignment with another group of folks from the U.S.; we had all worked together for a few months prior to going to France and the trip felt like an adventure. It was great to be sharing it with others even if we all didn’t hang out together all the time. At first, most of us lived in the same building near the Arc de Triomphe and with a rooftop terrace with one of the best views in town! Check it out!
Want to better see where this location was? Check THIS out!!!!
The star marks the spot!!
Once there, most of the time I was working which was crazy and unfortunate and for which I have given myself grief in retrospect, with no real effect on the past (how does that not happen??). However, even with the long days and many days of work, living there was a fantastic experience as I got a taste of life in a one-of-a-kind city. There were some experiences I would rather forget and probably have (… except the work ones!).
The daily life of a non-Parisian in Paris
Of course, being there for 6 months, we got to see a lot of the main sights in our free time. But we also got to live and deal with the mundane. Among the mundane, I can recall going to a hardware store looking for a particular type of lock (with my back-then limited French so I didn’t even know how to say “lock”), phoning locksmiths on behalf of my American colleagues (still not being able to say lock but using the words “cannot close the door” to indicate we needed help), doing laundry at public laundromats (which was quite the experience the first time as we didn’t know where the detergent went in those industrial machines), fighting to be able to buy a monthly carte orange for the metro with the more obtuse clerks, dealing with the throngs of tourists in the summer who made our commute in the metro more painful, etc..
Of course, I have to talk about food
The best part of the everyday (which, actually, was only possible on the weekends – if I didn’t have to work) was having breakfast at the neighborhood cafe (where the bread with butter was more butter with bread) and sit there for a few hours reading a book and watching people. The cafe au lait, of course, was the ever faithful companion of the butter with bread… and it was delicious.
I guess there was the other everyday breakfast routine which I also enjoyed - the one during weekdays. During weekdays we would go to the bakery near our office which offered -how can I say “selling” when these things were glorious- the freshest bakery items. Our everyday routine was to take a break around 9 AM and gather any interested colleagues for the 5 minute walk to the bakery. The baker didn’t speak English but baked goods know no language (I should be a philosopher). Her pain au chocolat (chocolate croissant) was fantastic and, of course, freshly baked. In August, as many other locals do, she took vacation and went to the beach. We had no idea at first what had happened and why the bakery was closed. We figured it out and rejoiced upon her return when, with my limited French, I managed to figure out she had gone with her family to the beach and to tell her we had missed her baked goods. Worthwhile to note, I lost like 10 lbs when I lived in Paris, even with this diet… That’s what walking daily does to you…
I also loved the movie theaters where you could enjoy a beer as you watched a movie (how adult of the French). I mentioned in an earlier entry about Paris about my favorite steak place and my favorite hot chocolate place so I will not repeat here lest this entry become War and Peace length.
Glorious end of the day
For me, and possibly for my friends Troy and Cybil, the “highlight” of the everyday was the end of the day and I don’t just mean leaving work which was probably the runner up of the highlight of the day. We lived in the first ring street around the Arc de Triomphe across from the Belgian Embassy. Our building had a rooftop terrace overlooking the Arc and behind it, further away, was the Eiffel Tower with its sign counting down the days until the year 2000.
At the end of just about every night, we would grab a bottle of cheap local wine (for like $2, perhaps the French version of two-buck Chuck? what would that make it? cinq-franc-Jacques?) and go to the terrace to drink the wine and sit back and take in the view until, 10 seconds before midnight, the counter would begin flickering, and at the stroke of midnight, the counter would change. At that point it was “good night”, “good night”, “see you tomorrow” and off to bed. That was the life.
Eiffel Tower 62 days before the year 2000; the counter we saw change just about every night!
I have surely left off many aspects of the daily life. If I think of others, I will add as comments but please, if you have your own routines or experiences to share, would love to hear about them. I will add to the Paris category in the future.
There are SO many places to go and enjoy a meal or a drink in Paris. Whether it be haut cuisine, a pastry, a glass of wine, or coffee, you will never run out of options in Paris and, many of the options, are quite good. Exploring these places is one of the guilt-inducing pleasures of any trip to the City of Light! What grabbed my attention and palate? Here they are…
Hot chocolate anyone?
My all-time favorite, and I have tried hot chocolate in quite a few places, is Angelina’s in the Rue de Rivoli in Paris, just across the street from the Tuileries (226 rue de Rivoli, 75001). Conveniently, they also have great pastries so I can kill two birds with one stone… I wish it had an outdoor sitting area but given where it is, that is not possible. It has become a little over-priced due to people like me raving about it. I am sorry…
Heaven for ilivetotravel!
Best little former secret family restaurant
Well, I say former because I have even seen it on Anthony Bourdain’s travel/food show a couple of years ago… But I went there before the show, for the record! This place called “Robert et Louise” is a little gem of a restaurant in Le Marais district (64, rue Vieille-du-Temple 75003).
Robert and Louise were the owners who started the restaurant in the 1950s. Robert has since passed away and I believe the restaurant is owned now by others. But, last time I was there, Louise still lived above the restaurant and would come down to get food…
The place is tucked away on a street with small antique shops, etc. but on a part of the street that at night is completely dead… except for Robert et Louise. The red and white checkered window curtains hide the restaurant from the passerby. You almost have to know it is there. My friends Chris and Wendy had discovered it two days before and took me there. The place would not pass governmental health regulations in the U.S. and I am so glad it is not in the U.S.! (Please don’t be scared away by that statement.)
The dish to go for is the steak to share by 2 or more folks – it is cooked in the fire pit right next to the main wooden table in the back of the restaurant (there are normal tables in the front of the restaurant). The fire pit, the nights I have been there, is fed by wood from a crate that the cook is breaking apart as needed to keep the fire going. The fire pit is located next to the small sink used by people to wash their hands (yes, this may sound gross to some but you will soon ignore it once you begin to enjoy the casual, non-touristy ambiance and eat the food!). Another spot in the back is the salad maker who is also the potato cooker. (The first I went the lady who cuts the meat was having a heated argument with the salad/potato-maker; she was the one with the big knife. We prayed they were only arguing about how much seasoning the meat should have…).
The dishes are simple but when simplicity is delicious, who needs anything else! Advice: Go early to avoid a long wait since the place is small and no one is in a hurry to leave.
A Supermarket with Flair
Paris has les Grands Magasins, the big fancy department stores that everyone wants to go shopping at. Galeries Lafayette near the Old Opera is my favorite. Colognes, clothing, you think? NOOOOOOO!!! The food section!!! It has a supermarket in it, as do other big department stores in Europe.
The spice section
But this one has a special place I like to go to every time I go to Paris. Their focus is Spanish ham (I forget the name, if it has one; but print the picture below if you are going and you will find it!). They serve other things but I love going to it to get me some Spanish ham, paired up with a good red wine!! You sit at the counter, order, and people-watch while you enjoy. Or tweet
And… More Chocolate!
I have to say that a real treat in Paris for any chocolate-liker (and, definitely, for chocolate-lover!) is to try the fine chocolates at any of the fine chocolate makers in the city. Some are on or near the Rue St. Honoré. Viator.com also offers some chocolate tours that are well worth the price. No need to name names, try any of the “maisons du chocolat“, and you will NOT be disappointed! I highly encourage tasting with a theme in mind whether trying only pure chocolate, trying different ones with different perfumes, trying only ones with nuts, etc. It can be overwhelming and you cannot have too many as they are filling! Bon appetit!
Pieces of heaven at Hugo & Victor
More about Paris and places to eat at from my friend’s Chris’ guest writeup! Check it out, lots of good info for those planning – or wanting – to go to Paris!