Sunday, September 16, 2012

European adventures 2012: Paris!

It was my first trip to Paris (that is, if you don't count the brief visit I made in 1982 when I only stayed long enough to change trains en route from Amsterdam to LeHavre where I was catching a ferry to Ireland to meet a handsome young Californian) so I wasn't sure quite what to expect when Husband and I boarded our Icelandair flight. I'd heard mixed things about the city. Most people seemed to love it, but some told stories of pickpockets, rude locals, dirty streets and outrageous prices. As it turned out, we completely fell in love with it - the food, the people, the beautiful buildings, the Seine, the art, everything!

Of course, it likely helped that we stayed with an old friend in his very comfortable apartment a short train ride from the city centre. Though just home from a month in North America and suffering jet lag himself, Marc was exceptionally hospitable and gracious and offered lots of excellent advice that helped us make the most of our time there.

We only had four full days in the city and needed to overcome the effects of the five hour time difference, so opted to be very selective in our sightseeing and leave a lot (including the Louvre) for "next time".   

Day 1
On Marc's advice, we spent our first morning walking from Montparnesse train station to the Eiffel Tower getting a sense of the city, and taking in a few sights along the way. 

Our first stop was the Hotel des Invalides - notable for, amongst other things, being Napolean's final resting place - and its lovely gardens.

As we approached the Tower, we picked up a picnic of delicious hot sandwiches and cold drinks and ate them sitting on a park bench admiring the Tower in the distance.

After lunch, we made our way to its base for the first time. What an impressive structure it is!  The photos don't do justice to how large it is!

We weren't able to get tickets to visit the top of the Tower but we didn't mind because we had other plans of the afternoon. On the advice of a work colleague, we took a river tour - which turned out to be a terrific idea. We were tired from all the walking and jet lagged so it felt good to just sit and let the tour guide introduce us to some of the city's key landmarks. 

After the boat tour, we wandered up the Champs Elysses to visit the Arc de Triomphe before catching the metro and train back to Marc's for the evening.

Day 2
The day started slowly because we were still feeling the effects of jetlag. After getting ourselves organized, we wandered into the city and made our first stop an early lunch at the delightful  Au Pied de Fouet.

It was a wonderful introduction to the leisurely midday meals Parisians so enjoy. Husband opted for a generous portion of slow-roasted duck with all the trimmings while I chose "salad". To be clear, the salad was not like any I'd ever had. It was stuffed with delicious ingredients that made it a wholesome and filling lunch, including chunks of roast duck, country ham, hard-boiled egg, warm potatoes and lentils, crispy carrots, tomatoes and green beans, with a slightly sweet dressing. Outstanding! I can still taste it. I just wish I'd thought to take a picture but it looked so good I dove in without thinking about it. Though full after our main courses, we finished the meal with coffee and the recommended dessert, which was a cross between creme brulee and a fruit tart. Fabulous!

After lunch, we waddled on hoping to visit Notre Dame Cathedral, which had impressed us a great deal when we saw it from the river the day before.

We didn't have the patience to stand in line to visit the interior of the Cathedral so contented ourselves with wandering round the outside people-watching and taking in the lovely gardens.

After a brief rest on a convenient park bench, we made our way to Ste-Chapelle, an ancient church containing some truly spectacular stained glass windows. There was a line-up there too, of course, but we didn't wait too long and it was well worth it.

While we were in the area, we also visited the the Conciergerie where we learned a great deal about the French Revolution and, in particular, the appalling bloodbath that followed it. Nearly 3,000 people were put to death by guillotine during that period, and nearly all (Marie Antoinette included) spent their final days housed in this impressive stone structure - of which only this lowest level remains.

By the time we'd finished our tour of the Conciegerie, we were tired and hungry so we headed back to the Latin Quarter in search of a food. Having has such a huge meal at lunch, we settled for glasses of rose and a light snack at a very entertaining little bar and then, revived, made one last stop at Shakespeare and Company.

I'd been wanting to visit this charming and historic book shop since I first saw "Before Sunset" - one of my favourite films - and it didn't disappoint.  Its selection of new and used books was terrific and it was fun exploring it with so many fellow book lovers.  While there, I bought a wonderful novel called "The Paris Wife", a fictional account of the marriage of Ernest Hemingway and his first wife, Hadley. Highly recommended for insight into the true (and often very dark) nature of the artistic narcissist.

Day 3
Finally recovering from jet lag, we rolled out of bed early and took the train and metro to Montmartre where we started the day by hiking to the top of the hill to visit Sacre Coeur and, in particular, its tower from where we got spectacular views of the city. Climbing to the top is not for the faint of heart as it was 234 spiralling steps up from the base of the tower, but it was definitely worth the effort.

I'll always think of Paris as the "white city" after seeing her shimmer in the sunlight.

When we'd climbed back down, we made our way inside the cathedral for a brief visit before meandering slowly through the streets in search of lunch.  It took longer to find than we'd hoped. The first two places we tried (both recommended by our travel guide) were closed for the holidays - which seemed extraordinary to us, but is very Parisian apparently. Never mind that folks from around the world will be seeking them out during the prime tourist season, restauranteurs need their vacations too. 

Fortunately, the third place on our list was open and the food was every bit as good as promised. Having worked up a substantial appetite with all the walking and climbing, we opted for appetizers of pickled fish (herring for me, sardines for Husband) and main courses of lamb and beef, washed down with a half litre of house red. Yum!! This pic was taken after lunch - which you can tell by the roundness of my belly and the sated looks on both our faces. 

Following lunch, we went on a self-guided walking tour of Montmartre that started at the Moulin Rouge and took us past numerous landmarks. Here are a few photos from some of our favourite spots along the way.
A wonderful trio of street performers
The Moulin Rouge
A delightful cheese shop
A vineyard in the heart of Montmartre
The brasserie where Amelie worked in the film of the same name

We loved the art built right into a low-rise apartment building
Even the water towers are beautiful in Paris!

We ended our visit to Montmartre with the most delicious gelato I've ever had. Seriously. And not only was it delicious, it was beautifully presented - so beautifully, I didn't want to eat it. Almost. I did, of course.

Our day ended with a wonderful dinner prepared by our host. It was a delightful evening during which we laughed and talked a lot, drank a substantial amount of "real" rose, and made plans for the reunion we were attending a week or so later. (More on that in a future post). 

Day 4
Our last full day in the city started early once again because we wanted to be lined up at the Musee d'Orsay when the doors opened. As it turned out, we didn't wait long at all - though it would certainly have been worth it if we'd had to. The building itself is magnificent. 

We especially loved the cafe where we stopped mid-visit for delicious cafe au lait. 

I've always loved the Impressionists so it was a pleasure seeing so many paintings by such luminaries as Monet, Pissarro, and Sisley - not to mention, Renoir, Degas, Cezanne, Gauguin and Van Gogh. In addition, we were introduced to many other fine works - including, L'origine du monde by Gustave Courbet, which both Husband and I loved.

At Marc's suggestion, we made a special effort to seek out stunning displays of art deco furniture. Husband enjoys woodworking so was particularly appreciative of the craftsmanship needed to fashion pieces such as this bed and mirror.

When we finally stumbled out of the Museum, it was time for lunch again so we headed off in search of a place we'd read about near the Louvre. It was closed (of course) so instead we landed on the patio of a rather expensive but tasteful little restaurant in the financial district where we ate the most delicious croque monsieur I have ever had.  It just goes to show that even simple food can be great when made with fabulous ingredients! 

After lunch, we wandered back to the Louvre to snap a few pictures. The Louvre is enormous, which isn't really evident from the photos. Looking at it from the outside, we were glad we hadn't been ambitious enough to attempt a visit on this trip.  Next time, we'll set aside at least a full day to explore it.

We spent the next hour or so seated in the Jardin des Tuileries digesting lunch, sipping cold beers, people-watching, reading and talking, and then wandered in the direction of the Grand Palais intending to visit one more museum.

However, en route, we stumbled on what was for me a high point of our first visit to Paris, a stunning exhibit of photographs entitled "De ma fenetre" by a Korean artist, AHAE.  The magical thing was that, although the photographs were all taken from a single window in the artist's home, the images were incredibly varied. 

A few were displayed in massive light boxes. Gazing at them in the darkened room, I wept at the sheer beauty of the photographs and the way they so perfectly illustrated the complexity and ever-changing nature of life.

Day four ended with us wandering back through the city towards Montparnasse station. 

Not far from the station, we stopped for our final meal in Paris - moules et frites for me, and duck (again) for Husband washed down with a few glasses of decent rose, then caught the train back to Marc's for the night.

This post is already far too long so let me end it by mentioning just two things more - the river and the bridges.

We fell completely in love with the Seine and the many majestic bridges that span it.  In our wanderings, we crossed the bridges often, stopping to gaze at the spectacular views they afforded and admire the statues and plaques adorning them.

Our last day in France was spent travelling to Caen, from where we took a large and very comfortable ferry to Portsmouth to visit friends. (More on our visit to the UK soon!) Here's a final picture taken on the upper deck of the ferry with the beaches of Normandy stretching into the distance. Husband and I both regretted not having time to stop in Normandy to visit the various D-Day monuments and explore its stunningly beautiful shoreline. Next time, for sure.

I hope to create a Flickr slideshow including more photos of our Paris adventures one day soon. If you're interested in seeing it, check back here again in a few weeks for the link. 


  1. Absolutely stunning shots. I just loved my visit to Paris. It was in the late 90's, and I only had a few days there. I walked a lot, just taking in the architecture. As like your gelato, I remember having the best tasting vanilla bean ice cream just outside the Louvre. You definitely got a lot in on your trip. :)

    1. Thanks! Glad this post brought back happy memories for you too. Yes, we did squeeze a lot into a short time - but we look forward to getting back soon. There's so much we wish we could have seen and done.