Paris, January 2016
So far, Jeri and I have been to Paris only a couple of times. When considering how many times we’ve been to Italy this seems a bit odd, but in truth we were really smitten with Italy and as everyone knows the French are rude to tourists, right?.
Our very first trip to Paris was in 2009. It was only a quick day trip by train while we were staying in London for a while. It was interesting, and certainly a weird thing to do in a single day, but it really didn’t “grab” us.
Our second trip was in September of 2015, again via train from London. But this time we stayed for 4 nights and something clicked. Now I’m not a fan of big cities but really ended up liking Paris. It is a very walkable place with wide sidewalks and the Metro system made it stupidly simple to get around. And then there’s that food thing. In truth we probably like eating in Italy a bit more than France if only because the Italians don’t seem to take their cooking so damn seriously. It’s supposed to be fun, ya know? But the French seem to trump the Italians in the dessert area so a clear win there.
In October of 2015, less than a month after our second Paris visit, British Airways unexpectedly ran a two day sale on business class flights to Europe from the US west coast for around $2,000 round trip. While this was an exceptionally good price (normally these fares run around $4,000 to $7,000) we had just returned and had just paid for some new trips slated for 2016. So we weren’t prepared to shell out serious money for someplace we had been recently, no matter how nice.
Then, in the middle of the sale, and only for about only a three hour period, British Airways dropped their price for roundtrip business class fares between LAX and London to only $1,600 (These are known as “flash sales”). American Airlines quickly matched, and the fare was good on their LAX to London nonstops aboard their nicest new aircraft, the 777-300ER. This new low price was only to London, while the rest of Europe stayed around $2,000. At $1,600 on an American nonstop, on their new plane…..I’m starting to twitch.
At this point we were pretty much Londoned-out, but not so with Paris. And we knew from our very recent experience how easy and cheap it was to get from Heathrow via train to Paris. So after some huddling to figure out how we were going to juggle credit cards to pay for this damned unexpected expenditure, we locked in a reservation for early January.
As fair weather travelers January was a strange time of year for us to plan a trip. But combined with the fare availability periods and other travel plans we already had, January in Paris it was going to be. We also figured we would have lots of opportunities to do indoor stuff if the Parisian weather really sucked.
The way Jeri and I prefer to travel is to plant our butts in one location for a number of days and visit all the nearby things that interest us. In typical engineer fashion I prepare a list of all the local sights that might be of interest to us and we plan each day on the fly, depending on our energy level and the current weather. I did this for our September, 2015 Paris visit and we managed to knock our list down quite a bit with only a few places remaining to be seen. We thought we’d only need a few more days to finish it off and be “done” with Paris (Hah!). So we purchased our airline tickets allowing for only four nights in Paris. Seemed plenty long enough at the time.
Shortly thereafter I ran into someone I had attended high school with. She had become a high school French language teacher and had traveled considerably in France. Naturally I hit her up for any suggestions as to what we might see while we were in Paris and she came through generously. My things to see list, suitable for our planned four day visit, swelled to nine rather dense pages. All in all, a rather nice problem to have.
Now flying business class to Europe is a pretty sweet thing, especially when doing so at such a cheap price. However due to all the flying on American Jeri and I had been recently doing, and having reached the upper, lofty levels of their frequent flyer program, I was able to get our round trip business class tickets upgraded all the way to first class…..for free. Flying long haul, international first class is something we’ve never experienced and is a “bucket list” sort of thing. It also allows access to aircraft lounges reserved especially for first class passengers. At this point we weren’t sure if we were looking forward more to the destination or the journey.
Day 1 Travel day (Fri – Sat)
Prior to our departure out of LAX we hung out in American’s Flagship Lounge for a few hours to get our…um, money’s worth. It was really very nice. Peaceful and quiet, with lots of free hot food, and glass walls looking out over aircraft gate areas.
Boarding the plane we were blown away by how nice and roomy the first class area was. There were only 8 seats in the first class cabin with two bathrooms reserved for us. As far as airline flights go, that’s a bathroom nirvana.
As much as I wanted to enjoy eating the first class food and the overall experience, I thought it was much more important to sleep. Jet lag hits me really hard and knowing we had only a few days there drove me to prepare as best I could. So for the previous four days I had been getting up at 3 AM and going to bed at 7 PM (which sucked just about as much as you’d guess). I figured that would get me halfway adjusted to Paris. So shortly after the flight began I set my amazing seat to fully flat, put on the pajamas American provided (!!) and curled up for about 7 hours of sleep. That’s the most I’ve ever been able to sleep on an aircraft. For me, first class was a completely stunning experience.
We arrived in Heathrow just a little behind schedule but with plenty of time before our Eurostar train out of Saint Pancras. Another fringe benefit of flying first class was that we had access to American’s Arrival Lounge. This is a weird sort of lounge first and business class passengers can access after they land. It’s primarily intended for business travelers who want to freshen up before heading into London. That, and free hot breakfasts. But the big thing for us was showers! We had been able to access lounge showers a few years ago during a long trip and knew how fantastic that could feel after a long flight. So we did and it was. It really, really was!
Leaving Heathrow now squeaky clean and pretty awake, we took the Heathrow Express train to Paddington Station, only a 15 minute ride. We had loaded Oyster cards (prepaid smart cards used on the London Underground) from an earlier trip so we quickly switched over to the Underground for the short trip to Saint Pancras, the station from which the Eurostars leave. We snagged a couple of pasties from a shop there and hung around the beautiful Saint Pancras station until it was time to leave. The Eurostar ride to Paris was smooth and easy as usual, the only negative being that when we popped out of the tunnel onto the French countryside, it was dark and we couldn’t see anything. So that part was unexpectedly boring.
Pulling into Gare du Nord on time we transferred over to a Paris RER train for the last, very short trip to our hotel for two nights, the Hilton Paris Opera. This is not the sort of hotel we’d normally stay in as it’s pretty expensive for our tastes (We’re sorta Hampton Inn people). But due to a credit card promotion I had two free weekend nights available at most any Hilton, and this certainly seemed like a good use of them. So we ended up with a stunning free room, and breakfast (!!) in the Opera district of Paris. I want to live my life like this all the time, but so far it’s not working out.
By now it was almost 8 PM and we were pretty tired but we decided to walk around the neighborhood a bit to see what was out there. Turns out the Opera district is Paris is rather ritzy, with a lot of high end stores. A couple of blocks from the hotel we came across a large department store called Printemps (“Spring”) with amazing animated window displays. All their Christmas decorations were still up and the window displays were part of it. They really weren’t selling anything but were rather more like works of art. Cleary it’s targeted toward children as there was a raised viewing platform right in front of each window. Here’s a couple pics, but it really can’t do justice as to how fantastic these looked:
Since it was January in Paris it was, not surprisingly, pretty damn cold. But we brought along the right clothes and were prepared. The only other thing we did that evening was to pick up some Metro passes for our travels while in Paris. This was a very strange experience where I ended up arguing with the ticket agent to sell me a couple. She was convinced we wouldn’t use them enough to warrant the cost of the two passes and was trying to dissuade us from buying them and going with less expensive alternatives. While it was a little annoying at the time, afterward I really appreciated her concern for trying to help out a couple of tourists when she had no reason to. It was pretty typical of the French we came across, very pleasant and helpful as long as we were polite and didn’t act like idiot Americans.
Day 2 (Sunday)
After sleeping in way too late we grabbed a quick breakfast at the Hilton, then headed off for our first target, the Marché Bastille. This is a very large street market which happens every Sunday from 7 AM to around 3 PM.
Jeri and I love street markets as they give an excellent sense of the community’s flavor. If there aren’t any street markets going we’ll fall back to our second favorite, grocery stores (we’re weird that way….and other ways, I suppose).
The Marché Bastille didn’t disappoint as it was indeed large, and crowded with locals doing their shopping. Mostly food, but also some housewares and clothing. As far as I was concerned there were too many pastry vendors and not enough time. That could possibly be my life’s motto.
It’s always interesting to see which vendors are favorites. One stand selling fresh fish had long lines of people waiting while nearby fish stands, selling to what my eyes appeared to be the same sort of fish, had few customers. Clearly, somebody knew something.
After we had our fill of the Marché we hopped back on the Metro and headed for our next stop, the Musée Jacquemart-Andre. This is an 18th century mansion a few blocks off the Champs-Élysées which has been converted into a museum. Now it’s a perfectly fine little museum which is elegantly done and somewhat off the main tourist track. That in itself would warrant a visit. But it has a component that really sets it apart, its tearoom.
A tearoom? Well, yes. The dining room of the mansion has been converted into a tearoom serving light meals and pastries. In the US, if a museum has some sort of cafe attached to it odds are it’s going to be pretty mediocre but possibly better than going hungry. But this is France and food is just a little bit important. So their museum cafes tend to be fairly good. And this one happens to be outstanding.
Jeri and I both had a plate that consisted of a large slice of their quiche of the day and an excellent salad. Finishing that, we were lead over to a large glass display case where we could select whatever dessert we wanted from waaaaay too many choices. They had some seriously chocolaty looking things but I decided to pass in favor of an interesting raspberry tort. I figured I can always get good chocolate stuff in the US, but this looked like nothing I had seen before. And I thought I heard the server say raspberry-rose, which sounded odd. Jeri selected a lemon tort, a fine selection……any other time.
OMG…..It was indeed rose-raspberry and unlike anything I had ever had before. The top and bottom of the slice were baked, piped meringue disks, flavored of raspberry. In between was a filling of rose flavored Chantilly cream (Jeri tells me this as this level of refined dessert sophistication is well above my pay grade) into which raspberries were imbedded. As soon as Jeri sampled my selection hers didn’t seem quite as tasty but too bad……desserts don’t fall under community property. Rose flavored anything strikes me as odd and unappealing, but this rose/raspberry combo was fantastic. We spent the rest of the day talking about it. This of course is an indication of our shallowness.
Musée Jacquemart-Andre: “Come for the exhibits, stay for the food”. Oh hell…..Just come for the food!
I do believe I’m starting to like France. Very much.
After a brief stop at our hotel to rest up from dessert strain, we walked a couple of blocks over to the massive Printemps department store to check it out in more detail. I’d be inclined to describe it as sort of like the Harrod’s of Paris, but I suspect that would be very insulting to the French. I’m not sure, but to me it felt like Printemps was bigger than Harrod’s taking up several city blocks and many floors high. The buildings in different blocks were connected by aerial corridors bridging the streets. Once you got in, you never had to leave Printemps if you wanted to go to a different building.
Of course there’s that “Once you got in qualifier”. It was an experience. Just inside the entrance points to the store were a number of well dressed gentlemen in dark suits. Everyone entering the store had to open their bag/purse for a manual search and jackets had to be opened up to presumably show there wasn’t a suicide vest underneath. Then there was another well dressed guy who wanded the incoming people with a hand held magnetometer. Certainly understandable, given the recent Paris events, but still a bizarre experience. That level of security must have been a real pain in the butt for the store, not to mention the cost. It didn’t seem to bother people much as the store was fairly packed. But the minor security hassle was worth it to see the store. It was all too expensive for our tastes but we did enjoy looking at the high end housewares and cooking gear.
In both our previous Paris visits we had somehow managed to miss seeing the Eiffel Tower lit at night, something we planned on rectifying that evening. I Googled around for ideas as to good evening viewing spots and found a recommendation for a walk from the Place de la Concorde, along the Champs de Élysées, then crossing the Seine on the picturesque Pont Alexandre III bridge (yeah, I know “pont” is “bridge” so I just wrote something redundant). Pnce it got dark we hopped the Metro to the Concorde station and popped up to the surface to start our walk.
The first thing we see is a huge Ferris wheel on one side of the Place de la Concorde. Huh? THAT wasn’t there last time. How come the Parisians were putting up with that? Continuing on, we found both sides of the Champs-Élysées lined with vendor booths as far as we could see, and the trees strung with brilliant Christmas lights. Clearly something was going on. Turned out it was this:
And we were lucky enough to stumble upon it on what may have been its last night (despite the date ranges on the sign). It was a Christmas Market with vendors selling goods supposedly made in France, and dozens and dozens of food stands. Judging from all the signs, hot wine seemed to be THE thing. Despite having spent much of the day finding new things to eat, we discovered there was yet more work to be done in that area. So more eating happened. After all, it seemed like the right thing to do. I’m not certain, but I think Champs-Élysées is French for “too much food”.
Leaving the hotel we had been given cryptic suggestions to be in view of the tower at the top of the hour and something about a “twinkle”. But we really weren’t sure what that meant. Even so, we were on the Pont Alexandre III bridge over the Seine with a great view of the tower right just as it hit 7 PM.
Very, very nice! “Twinkle” describes it well. For about 5 minutes at the top of every hour hundreds of white flashes randomly go off along the full length of the tower producing a wonderful twinkling effect. It was certainly worth braving the wind and cold to see it, and we also had a Christmas street fair thrown in as an added bonus.
Day 3 (Monday)
Since we only had two free nights at the Hilton Opera, and there was no way we were going to pay their normal rates, we planned a move to another (i.e., cheaper) hotel for the two remaining nights of our Paris visit. It was one we had stayed at on our previous visit so we knew what we would be getting. It’s very near the Gare de l’Est station and within walking distance of the Gare du Nord station to make it easy for our train trip back to London. But anytime you change hotels there’s a lot of wasted time, so maybe it wasn’t the greatest idea.
Dumping our luggage off at our new place, we headed out to check out a neighborhood known as Rue Montorgueil.
While collecting data in preparation for our trip I had come across a website by a pastry chef living in Paris named David Lebovitz. In it he had a page with something of a walking tour in a neighborhood centered around a street called Rue Montorgueil. It described food places, chocolate and cooking supply houses. Yeah, that sounds good.
The weather was fairly rainy so we spent most of our time ducked into stores, but that was OK. The culinary supply houses of E. Dehillerin (195 years old!), Bovida, A. Simon, and MORA were absolutely amazing. We had great fun figuring out what some of the stranger looking cooking implements were for. Williams-Sonoma, you can suck it! We’ve been to Zion.
Leaving Rue Montorgueil we found the Metro and headed south to the Île de la Cité, the little island in the middle of the Seine that Notre Dame sits on. We had gone there on our very first Paris trip but had been too dense to turn around and see that there was something else on the island besides Notre Dame: Sainte Chapelle.
It’s kind of hidden away and not really obvious to find. But it had been recommended to us and sounded interesting. It’s a royal medieval Gothic chapel, built in the 1200s by King Louis IX of France.
The lower level of the chapel was reminiscent of being inside a whale (as if I would know what that’s like). There are all these marvelous support ribs, some mini flying buttresses, rising to the ceiling from the floor. It was easy to forget these organic flowing shapes are actually carved stone. Viewed from an engineering viewpoint they were exceptional. Oh yeah, they were also purdy.
If one isn’t paying attention one could well miss the small opening to the narrow spiral staircase at the back of the room. This leads to the second floor where things get even more breathtaking. Essentially we’re talking stained glass walls. The builders designed the structure so that the roof load is carried by only a few columns along the perimeter of the structure. Then they filled it all in with stained glass from just above the floor to almost the ceiling. I think this is the best stained glass installation I’ve ever seen.
Anyway, well worth a visit. Even Hitler thought so, and stopped by for a visit when he was, um….vacationing in Paris in June of 1940. Can’t get any better an endorsement than that.
Before ending our day we wanted to do a pastry run that included Fauchon, which is supposed to have some of the best éclairs in Paris. Well, maybe, but they were anorexially thin. There are times for big, fat American excess, and éclairs are one of those times. We weren’t disappointed with Ladurée, where we found their small version of the rose-raspberry dessert we had loved at the Musee Jaquemart-Andre cafe. So big score there.
Day 4 (Tuesday)
This was to be our last full day in Paris so clearly we had to cram in as much as possible, right? So we started early and headed off to Montmartre and the Sacré-Cœur Basilica.
I’m a bit conflicted about this place. Sacré-Cœur was clearly stunning, as were the views of Paris. So big plus there. But even early on a midweek, cold winter’s day it was lousy with street vendors and aggressive scammers pushing the friendship bracelet crap. And if there’s more than one shop on a block selling berets you can chalk up the area as a tourist trap and move on. It struck me that at one time this was in fact “real” Paris but now it exists for the tourists. And locations for Woody Allen movies.
So we bailed from beautiful downtown Montmartre and headed off for the Montmartre Cemetery. I had found some info about it online that mentioned it was a good place to escape tourists and was as impressive as the much more visited Père Lachaise Cemetery, which we had already been to.
All I can say is the French really know how to do their cemeteries. No two plots were alike and it was a cacophony of structures dating back to the early 1800s. It appears that at some point in the past it became necessary to put a road through a section of the cemetery. Now in the US if that needed to be done the graves would be (maybe) relocated and the road would just be built through the cemetery. Not here. The French built a bridge specifically to span the cemetery with the crypt structures actually extending up into the bottom part of the bridge superstructure. Ok, that in itself is pretty cool and wacky. But it becomes ten times more impressive when you see the construction date cast into the bronze (!!) support columns holding up the bridge: 1888!
It would have been just an insane amount of money to do such a project back then. It wasn’t a river or deep canyon that needed to be crossed, it was “only” a cemetery. I love it! Oh, and in addition to all this other neat stuff that tourists never see, the cemetery has clean, free bathrooms (Number one tourist rule in Europe: Never say no to a bathroom!). If you’re in Paris, go see this sucker. Then you can walk up to Montmartre and buy a beret.
So………We were so impressed with the cafe at Musée Jacquemart-Andre we decided on lunch there again. Our life revolves around food. If anything, the second quiche was even better than the first. This time we both ordered the strange raspberry-rose dessert and subjected it to great scrutiny before eating. Many pictures were taken. “Dissection” might not be too strong a word. Jeri has a new project and I am the designated lab rat/tester. (A postscript note: Jeri has since learned the dessert is called “Ispahan” generally considered to have been created by Pierre Hermé, he of macaron fame. Jeri ordered his cookbook which features an Ispahan on its cover. Good times ahead for me!)
Waddling out of Musée Jacquemart-Andre, we caught the Metro and jumped across the Seine to Les Invalides to see the military museum and Napoleon’s tomb. The tomb was very impressive and we both thought it reminiscent of the eerily powerful Medici Chapel in Florence. The military museum was excellent but just overwhelming in its size and exhibits. There was just so much to see but we had to cut it short. Not only were we tired…….there was chocolate involved in the immediate future.
Somewhere in my data gathering for things to do on this trip I stumbled across a “Chocolate walk” in the Saint Germain neighborhood. It was a step by step set of directions to hit a number of extremely fine chocolate establishments that happened to be clustered in one Parisian neighborhood. Some weird freak of nature, no doubt, but it needed checking out. And we did. And it was good….VERY good. So much so that
if when we go back I want to do it again. But I couldn’t leave well enough along, and I reworked the walk instructions to include some additional shops that weren’t listed in the original. Rather than try and describe it, I’ve prepared a pdf of my new and improved Chocolate Crawl, which you can download here.
Day 5 (Wednesday)
Since we had to catch the Eurostar back to London at 11:30 AM we didn’t have much time to do more sightseeing. But there’s always time for food so first thing in the morning we swung by two excellent boulangeries, Liberté and Du Pain et Des Idées. We had a long, dangerous journey ahead and needed to stock up on survival rations.
The train ride back to London was easy as usual, but this time with a view. Grabbed a pasty again at St. Pancras (more survival rations, of course) and hopped on to the underground for the long trip towards Heathrow. We did make a quick stop along the way at Harrod’s so Jeri could pick up a fresh supply of her favorite tea. Princesses require such things (Do you have any idea how much trouble I’m going to get into for writing that?). We finally arrived at our Heathrow adjacent hotel and crashed for the night.
Day 6 Homeward bound (A very long Thursday)
Even though we were leaving I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit this may have been my favorite day of the whole trip. Why? First friggin’ Class, that’s why! On the outbound journey I slept through much of it but for the return trip I was awake and wallowing in the experience. I ate all the food I was offered and even some that wasn’t. I had a window seat with not one window, but three. Jeri watched about 6 movies and I worked on the first draft of this lousy thing. It was an absolutely fantastic time, the best flight experience I’ve ever had. I really want to live like this from now on, but that seems unlikely.
Thus ends my too long tale of our Paris visit. Jeri and I REALLY enjoyed Paris, all the walking, food, food, walking, food….We will definitely be returning, and for a longer period of time. But we’ve got some other trips to get out of the way first (I know, First World Problem).
If you’ve read to this point….well, there’s seriously something wrong with you. And no, you can’t have back the time you’ve wasted…..