Paris holidays ( almost ) off the beaten track.
Once I was French.
Actually I still am, but having spent more than half my life either in Australia or floating on the seven seas, I feel that I have absorbed so many traits from other cultures that my Frenchness is rather a technicality these days. Yes, I speak fluent French, I have a french passport, I can vote, travel freely to and from France, cook french dinners with my eyes closed, and I never miss the opportunity to attend the Sydney French Film festival every year.
But, transport me back to Paris, with Australian husband and kids in tow, and suddenly what I remember fondly as a young Parisian I now see thru tourists eyes, and foreigner’s at that!
It is 6 years since we were last in Paris, for a short visit over Christmas when we were still cruising. This time, we plan to stay for 3 weeks and attend my father’s 80th birthday, with a large family gathering planned. Because we’re here just in time for spring and Easter, I expect the weather to be mild enough so that we can wander around town, enjoy some sightseeing and even explore some of Europe. I may have organised rail travels and accomodation for a week’s excursion in Holland and Germany, but we’re pretty much winging it while in Paris, allowing for late breakfasts, long lunches spent sitting at the family table or impromptu rendez-vous with friends.
First things first. We are staying at my parents’, the family home where i grew up, and no it isn’t in a swanky apartment in the middle of Paris, like the ones you can find in Paris Vacation rentals. It is a comfortable suburban home in a once affluent area, with tons of childhood memories and easily accessible parks to walk off our jetlag.
Downtown Paris is 20mn away by train, which never used to faze us in the old days, but somehow feels like a hassle this time mainly due to the ongoing renovations carried out at the train stations. And I am not sure if it is just me, but there seems to be twice as many people as there used to be so let me tell you, catching public transport in peak hour in and out of Paris is an exercise in frustration. Just ask Mr T! Unlike Sydney trains where train officers monitor passengers alighting and boarding before signalling for the door to shut, Paris metro doors use an automated timer and God help you if you happen to step in or out of the carriage while the doors are closing. On many occasions, Mr T found himself painfully squeezed out while attempting to board behind me, resulting in a bad bruise but also tense moments watching one another slip away and trying to reunite at the next stop. Trust me, there is nothing romantic about Paris in these circumstances.
Another unromantic aspect of the city are the ever present building works occurring everywhere. No matter where we venture, the road is dug out for a new tram line, an old building is pulled down to make room for new apartments, a park is extended for the enjoyment of tourists expected for the upcoming Olympic Games in 2024…. In short, Paris 2019 is a major construction site. And don’t get me started with the damage caused after the passage of the black blocks/yellow vests, extra security measures taken around high profile attractions like the Eiffel Tower, not mentioning the ill fated Notre Dame cathedral struck by an awful fire.
I am sorry if this sounds like an overwhelming rant, but I feel that I need to describe the environment we found ourselves in to provide some sort of context explaining the program we embarked on. With a keen-to-shop teenage girl and an agoraphobic husband, the brief was basically to skip the crowds and look for something new ( at least to them ).
My favourite areas is in the 6th arrondissement around the Boulevard St Germain on the Left Bank. Ok, it isn’t quite off the beaten track but it is close to my heart. In the past, my mother and I would often spend a Saturday afternoon shopping in the elegant triangle formed by Rue Bonaparte, Boulevard Raspail and Rue Jacob. It used to be full of high end home décor stores, fashion boutiques and gourmet food shops. Twice yearly sales were a ritual and we managed to snag a few designer finds back in the days, now sitting in our wardrobes as precious vintage. Today, most of the brands we remember are gone ( YSL Rive Gauche, Dejac, Cassandre, …) replaced by no less interesting top fashion names. It is still a fun neighbourhood to wander around, and always the first outing I go on once I recover from jet-lag.
We headed straight for rue de Rennes, where Anne had already bookmarked a visit to teenage cult brand Brandy Melville’s store. Yes, it is an American brand that apparently has become the darling of cool young fashionista worldwide, and since it is unavailable in Australia and we happen to be in Paris…well, I’m a told it is a no brainer. Of course there are tons of other shops for younger style around, as are cafes where you can sit and watch people go about while you wait for your teenager to finish trying out half of the shop!
Once that’s done, walk down the Rue de Sevres till you reach Le Bon Marche, the oldest department store in the world and probably the most upmarket and expensive in Paris. Ironically translating in English as “ Cheap Deal”, this emporium is a fabulous feast for the eyes, where browsing is about the only thing we could afford and the food Hall ( La Grande Epicerie ) alone is enough to make any gourmand like me wish we lived in Paris permanently. A visit there always ends up in a compulsory late lunch, and this was no exception. We feasted on croque-monsieurs, mushroom quiches, macaroons, even local beers for Mr T, and purchased more gourmet snacks to take home.
Another favourite department store of mine is Les Galeries Lafayette, in the 9th arrondissement. Not exactly out of the way either, but always a must-do on our list. It is easily accessible by RER train with a large underground station so it is the default choice in cold and/or rainy weather as we don’t need to step outside. You can spend an entire day browsing thru 9 floors of luxury fashion, beauty brands, homewares, gourmet food…Anne and I certainly did, the shoes department ( basement ) and women ready-to-wear department ( level 2 ) particularly worthy of a mention. If shopping isn’t your scene, you can do what Mr T does: find yourself a seat at one of the 20 dining options, grab a drink and read a book. The Lafayette Cafe on the top floor ( level 6) is perfect for that and allows for an amazing view over the Paris rooftops.
While it doesn’t feel as exclusive as Le Bon Marche, it is just as beautiful and the Coupole at the centre of the store is definitely worth a visit. The glass dome and beautiful Art Nouveau design from 1912 can be viewed from a newly built suspended walkway called the glass-walk and it is so popular that areas of the store are permanently crowded with shoppers and tourists alike. The price of success!
Food shopping can also be done closer to home. Every suburb has a Carrefour supermarket, the French equivalent of Woolworths or Coles in Australia. Except that it includes extras such as alcoholic drinks ( they had a Foire aux Vins, Wine Fair, when we were there! ), clothes, homeware, electronics, books, stationery and even phones! We used to spend so much time there when we were fitting out our boats, I really wished we were taking delivery of another one. Anne could not get away from the snacks aisle, remembering her old favourites. I lost Mr T in the beer section for a while, then he disappeared looking for duck cracklings…Personally I nearly cried in front of the cheese selection, despairing at the unfairness of “only” having 3 weeks to taste 200 different types of French cheese.
We’re big fans of museums and we’re spoiled for choice in Paris. Having already visited the bigger museums in the past ( i.e Louvres , Musee d’Orsay, or le Grand Palais ) I was looking for a more intimate place and stumbled on the Musee des Arts et Metiers in the 4th Arrondissement.
Literally translating as “ Arts and Trades “ museum, it is in fact Europe’s oldest science museum, founded in 1794 by bishop Henri Grégoire, initially as a way to educate France’s manufacturing industry in useful scientific techniques. Housed in the former Benedictine priory of St-Martin-des-Champs, this industrial design museum is an interesting collection of scientific instruments and inventions which anyone with an interest in craftsmanship, mechanics, models, or anything related to scientific history (printing, early telecoms, watchmaking, construction, transportation…), would love. Mr T found his happy place here. There are beautiful astrolabes, celestial spheres, barometers, clocks, weighing devices, some of Pascal’s calculating devices, amazing scale models of buildings and machines that must have demanded at least as much engineering skill as the originals, the Lumière brothers’ cinematograph, an enormous 1938 TV set, and still larger exhibits like Cugnot’s 1770 ‘Fardier’ (the first ever powered vehicle) and Clément Ader’s bat-like, steam-powered Avion 3. The visit concludes in the chapel, which now contains old cars, a scale model of the Statue of Liberty, and a replica of Foucault pendulum.
The museum isn’t well known to tourists but popular with locals, and at the time of our visit, a few school groups were attending the temporary exhibition titled “Sur Mesure – Les 7 unites du monde “ which explored the theme of measurement from every angle ( length, weight, power, time, temperature, mass and light ). A bit heavy for holiday exploring, but my science buffs, Anne and Mr T, loved it and it reminded me of our homeschooling days when the world was a giant classroom.
Do you want to see Paris from above but can’t handle the never ending queues at the Eiffel Tower or don’t feel like climbing the 300 stairs at the Arc de Triomphe? Try the rooftop terrace of La Grande Arche in La Defense, Paris’ modern business district. While it is not in the centre of Paris, it is one of the city’s architectural landmarks. Built in the late 1980’s, it is part of the “historical axis”, a line of monuments, buildings and avenues running from the Louvre Museum in the center of Paris all the way up the Champs Elysees and past the Arc de Triomphe before ending at the Grande Arche. Shaped like a door that opens out into the world, the extremely modern design of the Grande Arche is highly original and attracted a fair amount of controversy in its earlier days.
Constructed as a bridge elevated 110 meters in the air and supported by 12 pillars, it overlooks the Parvis (Plaza) of La Défense and the surrounding districts of the city of Paris. You can access the rooftop by riding a panoramic elevator that climbs amidst the high-rises in only 1mn ( maybe not great for those afraid of heights!) The 360deg view from the top is magnificent, extending down from the Parvis to the Arc de Triomphe, the Champs Elysee and the Louvre Museum, to the Foundation Louis Vuitton, the Eiffel Tower and the Tour Montparnasse, and the lesser known ( to tourists at least ) western districts of Nanterre and Colombes. There were hardly any one on the promenade when we were there, making it ideal for photo taking on a particularly sunny day.
As usual, Mr T soaked in the views much quicker than I, and was happy to find a bar to while away the time as Anne and I goofed around on the terrace. You do need to buy a ticket to gain admission ( this costs 15 euros and can be done online) to the elevator and the rooftop, which includes access to any temporary exhibitions shown there. At the time of our visit, “When the mask comes off” was on display, a collection of photographic works from Stephane de Bourgies, a french photographer, whose trademark is black and white portraits of chefs, celebrities, and captains of industries ( lots are French people, but he has also shot the likes of Sting or John Malkovitch ). For a photo buff like me, it could not be more serendipitous than that! I spent easily 1hour studying every one of the 300 pictures on show in total awe.
After you’re done on the promenade and you’re back on the ground, you can sit on the marble stairs and watch Parisians go about their business ( literally!), stroll around the plaza and spot some of the 69 sculptures and works of art spread out in the open or visit Les Quatres Temps, the busiest shopping mall in France ( we didn’t, the mere mention of it made Mr T’s skin crawl!!)
Eating and Drinking
I already mentioned La Grande Epicerie and Lafayette Cafe, both great for a break from shopping. The latter in particular is one of our favourites, as it is set up as a cafetaria so everyone can choose how much or little they want, prices are reasonable and the view of the surrounding rooftops is free!
Also in Les Galleries Lafayette complex, Angelina is a good choice for afternoon tea or a sugar fix. A spinoff from the original salon de the on the rue de Rivoli, it is cosy and elegant, tucked away in the corner of the Woman’s Fashion floor. We were meeting with a relative, Magali, who recommended their famous Hot Chocolate called “L’Africain”. Terry ordered it along with a lemon meringue tart, while I chose Le Mont Blanc griotte, a variation of the house specialty, Le Mont Blanc ( meringue filled with light chantilly cream, chestnut cream vermicelli, cherry jelly and a cherry on top!). I really wanted to like this, but while I enjoyed the cherry flavor I am afraid I am not a fan of chestnut cream. The lemon tart was delicious though, as was the fraisier Magali ordered. As for Anne’s ice cream sundae, she gave it the thumbs up!
Another good place for afternoon tea or happy hour ( they are about the same time!) is the Cafe des Arts et Metiers. Located just across the street from the museum of the same name, it is also a local’s favourites, vantage point for people watching and a mere 5 steps from the metro station. Perfect for a rendez-vous with a friend ( as we did ). Mr T discovered a beer he liked there ( Brooklyn Lager, I know it is not a French brew ), I stuck with mint tea. Just loved the dark panels and walls covered with old photos and movie posters.
The nicest find was Renoma Cafe Gallery restaurant in the 8th arrondissement. We organised to meet Natalie and Anne Laure, girlfriends of mine from our Business’ School days, there and knowing the location in the “golden triangle” and opposite the Four Seasons George V, I was bracing myself for a high end expensive experience. what a surprise to walk into a welcoming space that combined art gallery ( some controversial pictures on the walls ) and cosy seating in a casual ambiance.
Though the clientele was mainly business people, there were hardly any suits or signs of bling. The staff is very friendly and chatted with us in English when they heard some of us were from Australia. Marc was even invited to come back for one of their music nights! The menu is eclectic, a mix of French classics ( Seared Foie gras, Steak Tartare, Snails in parsley butter, duck parmentier ) and more “international” choices that could easily feature in a Sydney restaurant ( cheeseburgers, caesar salad, grilled tuna with sweet potato mash, miso marinated salmon with quinoa ).
Though we heard some english conversation in the room, I don’t think there were many tourists in the vast dining room. Not that we minded, we were too busy catching up after 15 years of radio silence!