Saturday, February 5, 2011

Paris in Spring

I have been to Paris many times and my best memories of Paris are of the times that I visited in the spring. I always felt there was a special feeling of gaiety and happiness in the air. Maybe it is because people are happy that the cold and dark winter has finally come to an end, the promise of sunny days and leisurely strolls along the Seine, a coffee on the sidewalk at a little cafe. Paris is one of those cities that have "street life". You will notice, that with the first rays of sunshine, the outside terraces appear and they immediately fill up with people for lunch and an after work drink, whether it is a Monday, Tuesday or a Friday.

My favorite way of exploring Paris is on foot. I have taken several friends to Paris over the years and nearly killed some of them by making them walk all over the city. The good thing about walking is that you don't have to worry about all the delicious French food you will be eating: according to Mireille Guiliano's "why French women don't get fat" walking is part of that secret.

I will take you on a tour around Paris in the spring, visiting my favorite places, sipping cappuccino on one of the many sidewalk cafes, having a fresh croissant from the patisserie on the corner and eating in some of my favorite restaurants. We start our first day at the left bank as that is where I prefer to stay, my regular hotel being the Meridien Montparnasse, next to Montparnasse station. We start the day at the famous "Le Deux Magots" with either a coffee or a glass of champagne. They also have great omelets and foie gras if you are hungry.

Les Deux Magots is a Parisian landmark; famous people like Jean-Paul Sartre,  Simone de Beauvoir and Picasso used to come here, write, drink their coffees and meet up with friends. From the restaurant we cross Place Saint Germain de Pres and walk thru the narrow cobbled stoned streets towards Boulevard St Michel and the Quartier Latin, the student quarters. We stop to look at some of the windows of the little stores and boutiques. We leave the Quartier and cross Quai St Michel and lean over the wall to watch the bateaux mouches on the Seine.

On the other side of the Seine on the Ile the Cite, the little island in the middle of the river, you can see the Notre Dame. We cross the bridge and walk towards the grand old lady. It's a tradition for me to go in and light candles for my grandma and my dad. After leaving the Notre Dame, we walk towards to tip of the Ile the Cite. Here you will find one of the oldest bridges in Paris, the Pont Neuf, linking Rive gauche and Rive droite, the left bank with the right bank. We walk over the bridge towards the right bank, where our next stop is the Louvre. If you have a lot of time in Paris, definitely worth a visit; today we won't go in, we just walk around the outside before walking to the inside courtyards, admiring the architecture and trying to envision what it would have been like to live in a place like this centuries ago.

Thru the Tuileries garden, first designed by Catherine de Medici in the 16th century, we cross the Place de la Concorde and enter the famous Champs Elysee, the 5th avenue of Paris, or according to the French "the most beautiful street in the world". Time for a coffee at the terrace of the famous "Le Fouquet", or one of the many other restaurants that are lined up along the Champs Elysee, and do some people watching; it's easy to separate the tourists from the elegant and well-dressed Parisian people.  

After having recharged our battery with a cafe creme, we stroll along the Champs Elysee to the Arc de Triumph at the far end, on the Place Charles de Gaulle.

You can walk underneath the Place Charles de Gaulle to the center. The Arc the Triumph is built as a monument for all the soldiers that fought and died for France and it has the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier from WWI. There is an eternal flame burning in memory of all those unknown soldiers. If it is not too crowded it is worth going up to the top to look over Paris from there. We decide that we have walked enough for 1 day and we take the metro back to Boulevard Montparnasse, where we have a glass of my favorite Belgian beer at Cafe Leffe

Time to go back to the hotel and change. Tonight we have reservations at one of my favorite restaurants in Paris, Brasserie Lipp. Brasserie Lipp is an institution. Established in 1870, it's known to be frequented by politicians, writers, journalist and other famous people. Therefor I decide to dress up for tonight as I don't want to feel under-dressed compared to the chic French women, who always seem to have that natural elegance you cannot buy. Our reservation is at 7.30. The maître d' sees us to our table. As in most brasseries, the tables are so close together that he has to move the table so one of us can slide onto the bench before moving the table back. Only a couple of tables are occupied, but it is still early for Paris. The waiter, an impressive grey haired gentleman in black, hands us the menus welcoming us with a “Bonsoir M’sieur, M’dame, voulez vous un aperitif?" Here you won't find the 18 year college student serving you. In this restaurant you will only find yourself helped by older and very experienced waiters, who are proud of their job and hired because they have years of experience and reputation. the maître d' is supposed to be one of the best in Paris.

While sipping our Kir, we scan the menu. As always I am tempted to try something new, but as always I end up ordering the same as I have so many times before: fish soup for my starter and steak tartare for my main course. Before our starters arrive the waiter arrives at our table to prepare my steak tartare, adding spices and a raw egg to the raw ground beef before setting it apart until he will serve it. If you are not used to real French food, you will ask me, like several of my dinner companions before: "they will cook the meat before they serve it, right?". And I will smile and answer "No, I will eat it raw, just like that".

The fish soup is served. Pureed and thick, served on the side with little pieces of bread, a spicy rouille and grated gruyère. I put the rouille on the bread, put it in the soup and sprinkle it with gruyère and take my first spoonful. We enjoy this delicious dish while finishing up our Kir and while the waiter pours us a glass of the Chateauneuf-du-Pape that we had ordered earlier and he had already opened so it could breath. My main course is served with frites and my must-have side of mayonnaise. I sit back in my chair, look around, enjoying the food, the wine and the buzz in the restaurant, that by now is almost full. Conversations are animated, people are enjoying the company, the food, the wine. This is Paris, eating is a feast. Although we are tempted to order the profiteroles for dessert, we are good tonight and only order coffee. There are still 2 more days of eating and drinking ahead of us.

Day 2 of exploring Paris. How else to start the day, then with fresh coffee and a croissant, the way they only make them in France: flaky, buttery and still warm. So we walk to one of the patisseries on Rue de Rennes, close to our hotel. Sipping our coffee and nibbling our croissant, we discuss what we want to do today.

We decide to go first to the famous cemetery Pere Lachaise, where Jim Morrison is buried. So after finishing our breakfast, we walk down into the metro station and buy our tickets. We change trains at one of the major stations, Chatelet-les-Halles, and from there take a direct train to the famous Pere Lachaise. The metro can look intimidating at first but once you have the hang of it and understand the system, its a great way of getting around the city. Just don't go in at night close to closing time, you might get stuck and have to jump the gate in order to get out, I had to do that once, not a fun experience.

The cemetery is big so get a map if you want to know who is buried where (it’s a bit like the Hollywood star map with all the residences of famous people, although here they are dead.) Besides Jim Morrison there are a lot of famous people buried in Pere Lachaise and although I am not a big fan of cemeteries, this one feels special and even a bit romantic. Thru the long lanes surrounded by blossoming trees, we walk past graves of French writers, politicians and poets. We see the graves of Chopin, Maria Callas, Edith Piaf, several members of the Rothschild family and Oscar Wilde. Jim Morrison's grave is small and unimpressive. I always feel sorry for the people buried next to him as fans stump all over their graves to pay respects to their hero.

After having walked among the dead all morning, we feel the need to be among the living and what better place than a visit to the lively Montmartre. The train drops us at the bottom of the stairs that lead us to the Sacre Coeur. We climb what feels like a hundred or more stairs to reach one of my favorite churches.

It is a clear and sunny day and turning our backs to the Basilica, and with Montmartre being the highest point in Paris, we have a view of almost all of Paris. We can see the Eiffel Tower and all the way towards the Montparnasse Tower next to our hotel. We walk around the church and afterwards walk to the Place du Tertre, the main square where a number of famous painters like Salvador Dali, Monet, Picasso and Vincent van Gogh used to live or work. I know its one of the most touristy places in the city, but I can't help myself, there is something about this place and the atmosphere that makes me come back here every time I am in Paris. We walk around the little square, looking at the artists trying to sell their stuff. Some of it is good, some definitely is not. It's lunch time and we are getting hungry. I know a little restaurant on the corner of the square that has the best Croque Monsieur so that's where we are going. 10 minutes after we give the waiter our order, our plates arrive. Croque monsieur might not sound interesting if you read the description on the menu: ham and cheese sandwich, but this is not just a ham and cheese sandwich, this is the best ham and cheese sandwich in the world: baked cheese on the top, black forest ham, gruyère and béchamel sauce inside, this is a piece of art. Over lunch we discuss what we should do that afternoon and we decide to do some shopping at the famous department store Gallerie Lafayette on the Blvd Hausmann, across from the Opera house.

Before we go into Gallerie Lafayette, we take a quick stroll around the Opera. It is a magnificent building and was actually the inspiration for "The Phantom of the Opera". We cross the street to enter les Galleries Lafayette. Not only is it a great department store, it is a beautiful building from an architectural point, with the inside area completely open with a beautifully painted ceiling. After happily browsing the different floors, we leave with a handful of shopping bags. I am content as I have stored up on my favorite french cosmetics from Caudalie. Via Rue de la Paix we walk to the Place Vendome, home of the Ritz and some of the most famous design and jewelery stores in the world. We walk around the place, window shopping at my favorite store, Cartier. We decide its time for a glass of champagne and where better then in the Ritz. They are picky here and security is tight, and depending on what famous guests are staying, they might not even let you get into the door. Today we are lucky, they let us into the front door but immediately a liveried doorman approaches us asking us for our room key. We tell him we are not guests, but we would like to have a drink and he escorts us to the bar, making sure we cannot access any other part of the hotel. I guess the price of the rooms here are not just for the room, but also for the guests privacy. We are seated and order our glass of champagne at 20 euro each. This is the price you pay for being at the hotel where Lady D used to stay. We linger over our champagne, relaxing, people watching and making up stories about them. We decide to leave the Ritz in style and take a taxi back to our hotel.

Dinner tonight is at another one of my favorite restaurants, Chez Andre on Rue Marbeuf. Compared to Lipp, Chez Andre feels warmer, less intimidating. The restaurant has a great name but the atmosphere, even though the service is impeccable, seems less formal and the clientele more low key. It is more like having dinner at your neighborhood restaurant among the locals.

After ordering our aperitif, we browse the menu. I don't have to think very long.  It's day 2 in Paris; I have to have foie gras today. For my main course another classic: moules frites. With that we order a nice bottle of Alsace Riesling. The foie gras melts on my tongue and is served with pieces of warm toast. I am in food heaven. After that my mussels arrive. A big steaming pot is put on the table, full of big black mussels in a sauce of white wine and cream. I dip a piece of bread in the sauce and taste it. It is delicious. With it come real french fries: thin, crisp, with just enough salt and of course my side of mayonnaise. Tonight we decide to sin as it is Saturday night and we are in Paris. I order cheese for dessert and have a glass of red wine with it. I convince you to try the mousse au chocolate. Of course we share. Feeling guilty after all this food, we decide to walk from the restaurant to the Seine, to look at the Eiffel Tower. Its a short walk to the Pont Alexandre. This is another bridge connecting the Rive gauche with the Rive Droite and leads directly to Les Invalides, the resting place of Napoleon. To me this is the most beautiful bridge in Paris with its ornate lamp posts and cherubs.


From the bridge you have a spectacular view of the Eiffel Tower and at night there is a light show every 15 minutes. We watch the show and afterwards stroll along the Seine to have a closer look at the famous monument. It's a beautiful night, the sky is clear and the air is warm. We sit on one of the benches along the Seine and watch the boats float by. We decide to end the night with a  night cap at Le Ciel du Paris on top of the Montparnasse Tower.

Its our last day and we debate whether we should go to Invalides or the Musee D'Orsay this morning. We decide to let Napoleon rest, he has been there so many years, he will still be there next time. Instead we head to the Musee D'Orsay; housed in an old railway station, it is famous for its sculptures and impressionist paintings. The building itself is worth a visit even if you are not into museums but as far as museums go, I prefer it over the Louvre.

We wander around the various floors, admiring the Monets, Renoirs, Cezannes and van Goghs and afterwards visit the museum store. From the museum we walk to Blvd St Germain and window shop in all the designer stores. It's time for a coffee so we stop at a sidewalk cafe and sit outside drinking a cappuccino, watching the hustle and the bustle of the left bank. From St Germain we decide to take the metro to the Marais, one of the quartiers that in the last couple of decades has transformed from a neglected and poor neighborhood into one of the hipper quartiers, with a lot of art galleries, smaller and funkier shops, cafes and night clubs. One of the most famous places in the Marais is the Place des Vosges. It dates back to 1600 and used to be a Royal Palace. Today it houses the Victor Hugo museum, as he used to live there. We walk around the square, underneath the arches. The former palace now houses art galleries, boutiques and restaurants. Our target is Ma Bourgogne, in one of the corners of the square, where we have planned to have lunch. 

We are lucky and find a table outside, under the arches. It is another glorious spring day so it is nice to sit outside, but when you eat at Ma Bourgogne you definitely have to go inside as the interior is worth seeing as it is very old and authentic. I can't resist and order foie gras again. It is after all only when I am in France that I can eat it. They have wonderful salads and steaks as well. We order half a bottle of Chablis with it. Life in France is good, although it's good we don't do this year round. After lunch we walk around the narrow cobble stoned streets of the Marais, browsing thru some of the little stores and art galleries, enjoying another coffee before returning to our hotel.

Tonight we are going to do something different. After all the wonderful but rich French food, tonight we are going to the Blue Elephant. There are Blue Elephant restaurants all over the world and I have been to the ones in London, Brussels and Paris and enjoyed every visit. We take a taxi to the heart of Bastille, where the restaurant is located. When we walk in it feels like we enter a different world. Statues, elaborate flower arrangements, Thai decorations and little waterfalls, make it easy to pretend you are in a Thai garden. And it is all very elegant and sophisticated with an eye for details. The decor and atmosphere is definitely one of the main attractions for me, but I always really enjoy the food as well.

We order several dishes: spring rolls, chicken sateh's, beef penang, fried jumbo shrimp and the jasmine rice, which I love. With that we have a refreshing bottle of Pouilly Fume to add a little bit of a French touch to the dinner, we are after all in Paris.  

And for the second night in a row I cannot resist dessert when I see the fried banana with ice cream on the menu. I almost lick my plate. Although not a very "French" last night to close out our Paris trip, it is definitely another great restaurant and a great meal.

This tour has only given you a glimpse of Paris and you have only had a taste of some of the food. There are so many great restaurants that I have been to in Paris, to name a few: Montparnasse 1900, Alsace, La Marine, La Fermette Marbeuf and new ones arrive all the time.

City of food, city of wine, oh Paris, je t'aime.......



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