So far in our journey we have traveled through Amsterdam and Brussels and now we’re on to Paris. We arrived in a light drizzle at the Gare du Nord train station on a Friday afternoon in September. We took an amazing fast train traveling at nearly 200 mph. The trip was just under 1.5 hours compared to a car ride lasting 3.5 hours. Looking out the window was strange, especially when we passed near a highway and the cars were creeping along. From the station, we walked to our apartment located in the 3rd Arrondissement. It took 15-20 minutes and was a good way to get our bearings and stretch our legs. Some say the area surrounding the Gare du Nord station isn’t the best, but it seemed fine to us (especially compared to some of our neighborhoods here is SF) and we saved some money on a cab since we didn’t want to navigate the subway while carrying our backpacks.
Our apartment was a good size studio with a washer and dryer (a necessity when you pack for two weeks at a time and need to do laundry a few times on the trip). I can’t say enough how much we appreciated having a kitchen for most of our stay. Eating out for a month straight would have been rough, even for two crazy foodies. So, settle in and find the closest grocery store and stock up on some staples.
If there’s one fact of life we are most in denial about when planning a vacation, it’s poor weather. Rain was the unfortunate daily theme of our six days in Paris. Expectations of lazy afternoons in parks reading books and strolling along the river with a slight autumn chill in the air quickly evolved. Vacationing amidst the threat of rain isn’t necessarily a negative, it just requires a lot more planning. So, how did we do it? We chose a district for the day and mark on a map a selection of great coffee shops, stores, museums, and even a movie theater as indoor escapes. Being in the city for the first time and for most of a week, we sought to see a large portion of the city. From our apartment, we had easy access to three major metro lines, an underground world we spent a lot of time navigating.
I probably should not go any further before I thank our friend Rebecca for providing us with some amazing insight, restaurants to visit and quirky things to do. A true Francophile, fluent in French, and wanderlust crazy are just a few travel related descriptions she fits. I wish we could have had her as our guide a few days. There is something about being able to truly communicate with people, especially the french, that changes your experience in any country and there is definitely less stress when language is not a barrier. I’ll work on my french for the next 10 years because when I’m 40 we (Rebecca and I) are going to France to take some classes at Le Cordon Bleu.
Paris is huge and felt similar to NYC in its expanse, intensity, and stunningly iconic sights, sounds, and tastes. Our first evening there we walked down towards Notre Dame, passing the Pompidou along the way. Michael is an amazing night photographer so I accompanied him on his quest to ever perfect his timed exposures. The rain had also subsided for most of the night so we were able to walk around and stay fairly dry.
Our first full day in Paris we took a self guided tour of pastry and chocolate shops in Arrondissements 1, 6 and 7. Michael’s goal for Paris was to eat Pan Au Chocolate every day so we stopped for a coffee and pastry and headed out for the day. We didn’t take full advantage of the subway until a few days in so we walked a TON. We walked from our house to the Lourve, then through the Jardin des Tuileries. We stopped at WH Smith Bookstore (an English Bookstore) for some new reading material and then on to Pierre Herme for some gorgeous Macarons. I’ve made a few successful macarons but for some reason they are never the first thing I think of when I want to make cookies. I should try and make them more often so it becomes second nature instead of scientific but we’ll see what the future holds. The macarons there were exquisite. Minimalist display with his cookbooks and other chocolate and pastry creations lining the walls made me happy and made me want to change careers. We bought two macarons to share. I wish we had stopped in Paris last though and I would have brought a bunch home. (Though it’s a 50/50 tie with Austria as the last stop in order to bring home Strietzel but we’ll get to that in two more episodes).
After Pierre Herme, we walked to a couple of pastry shops and chocolatiers. Our first stop was Hugo et Victor at the Boutique Rive Gauche location. You’re not allowed to take photos of the chocolate (Michael found out after he snapped the first), but we did buy a little box that looks like a moleskine notebook to bring home. Amazing morsels filled with fruit and herb infused ganache. We also went to Henri le Roux and La Chocolaterie de Jacques Génin and drooled on more gorgeous chocolates. If you’re not traveling to Paris anytime soon, some of the best and comparable chocolates we’ve had in the states are from Christopher Elbow. He hails from my hometown in Kansas City and also has a store here in San Francisco. He has some retailers across the US but I believe you can order online.
On Sunday we woke up to glorious sun and embarked on our most memorable day starting in Montmartre. We first stumbled on a street “garage sale” of locals selling stuff on blankets in the sidewalk. I had to use utmost self control knowing we were pack mules for another two and a half weeks. After walking up to Abbesses, a neighborhood tour of boulangeries, patisseries, and fromageries we ended in a beautiful picnic in front of Sacre Coeur to bask in the sun.
We bought a baguette from a corner bakery (I’m pretty sure you can get bread anywhere in Paris and it will be delicious) and went on to find the rest of our picnic lunch. We stopped at Gontran Cherrier by strong recommendation from Rebecca who would probably move there at the drop of a hat if Chef Cherrier happened to propose. He makes amazing pastries and breads, including some crazy varieties like squid ink baguettes, and he’s a handsome man. We bought a fruit tart for our picnic, Michael drank an espresso, and then we moved on to find cheese. Thankfully the 18th Arrondissement is full of great choices. We stopped into Par Ici les Fromages on Rue Caulaincourt and bought a small log of goat cheese. We purchased salami from the grocery store before we left so we headed for Sacre Coeur looping around from the back. We took some photos and found a place on the grass to eat. Perfect picnic and my that cheese was good.
The clouds rolled back in soon after our picnic so we moved on. We walked by Moulin Rouge because I guess you should see it, popped into an old cemetery, and then made our way back to the apartment to regroup for the evening. We finished our fantastic day with dinner at Jim’s House. Every Sunday night for the past 30 years, Jim Haynes has hosted a communal dinner at his house in the 14th Arrondissement. We felt lucky to be in Paris on a Sunday night and were very glad we got to experience it. There were people from all over the world, including some resident Parisans. The common language is English so don’t be alarmed. We met some great people and received some great advice on places to eat or visit for the rest of our trip. It was fun to connect with fellow travelers and find commonalities with people you may never cross paths with again. The guest chef prepared a three course meal that we ate casually, some standing on the patio and some inside his atelier. Jim has a vibrant personality, he’s an expat, and he is very good at introductions and will make you feel at home in his home. I really recommend you go if you can.
The next day we woke up again in sun. We took the metro to le Tour Eiffel. We bought croissants and bread from a bakery close by and ate on the steps of the Palais de Chaillot across the river from the tower. Clouds quickly rolled in again during our walk to the tower and we found refuge under the tower, protected by a construction trailer (not the most beautiful) for a 15 minute torrential downpour. The rain left as quickly as it came and we moved on. By now we were pros at not letting the rain drag us down. We ate bread and cheese in the Champ de Mars before heading to the Pompidou. Camembert cheese can be highly pungent and we could barely eat what we bought so bread and apples was our lunch for the day. The Pompidou had a Lichtenstein exhibit we really enjoyed and the views of the city are pretty amazing from the observatory floor. If you like modern art you should stop in.
That night we decided to try gourmet burgers for dinner. According to a travel journalist and burger connoisseur we met at Jim’s dinner, Burgers are making a name for themselves in Paris. Neil may be the biggest burger fan I know. He has lived in Paris for nine years and is scheming a famous burger of his own. He suggested a few of his favorite burgers to try and we went to the restaurant closest to our apartment, Big Fernand. The burgers were good, similar to fancy burgers in San Francisco with really good buns. The other places recommended that we didn’t get to try were: Blend, Paris New York, Atelier St George, and Maison Mere. I guess I’m not surprised that burgers are making their way across nations. They are delicious.
I have a bunch more to share from the last three days of our trip but I don’t want to make this post so long you tire yourself reading it. Paris Part Deux will come soon and it only gets better, so stay tuned! Also, the full set of trip photos are on Michael’s Flickr so feel free to catch what I didn’t post here and get a sneak preview of what’s to come in part two.