Jon and I have each previously been to France, not together, and on guided tours which filled our days with as many sites as possible in a short time. During this visit, we were able to spend two full weeks slowly exploring the City of Lights together. Happily, we also got to share our time in Paris with friends. This divided our trip into three distinct segments; enjoying French food Alvin and Yue Chao, lazily exploring lesser visited neighborhoods on our own, and visiting the major tourist attractions with my sister, Marisa. Paris, France – Part 1 will describe our visit with our friends, ventures into French food, and the neighborhoods not typically visited by tourists on a tight schedule. For the major tourist attractions see our follow up article, Paris, France – Part 2, written by guest blogger Marisa P.
Day 1 – Thursday, May 21, 2015
Our plane landed at Charles De Gaulle airport at 11:25pm. Because we were arriving from another EU country (Czech Republic), we didn’t have to worry about customs or immigration. We went straight to the train station to caught the last train of the night into the city, arriving at our Airbnb apartment around 12:50am. We were greeted by the host’s friend who showed us around and had everything taken care of. Tired, we went straight to bed.
Day 2 – Friday, May 22, 2015
We slept in a little, but got ourselves up to meet our friends Alvin and Yue Chao. Alvin and Yue Chao were vacationing in Paris and one of the reasons why we came to Paris from Prague without visiting the in-between countries. Alvin and Yue Chao were only in the city for a few days, and we didn’t want to waste their site-seeing time, so we met them near their apartment in the Latin Quarter.
We were hungry when we finally met the guys, so we decided to buy some sandwiches and catch up. Alvin and Yue Chao had already spent two days in France and seen the biggest attractions; the Eiffel Tower, Louvre, etc. That worked well for us, because we planned to visit those when my sister arrived. After eating we moved down the street towards the Pantheon. The Pantheon is a large domed building designed similar to the Pantheon in Rome. When we got within sight of it, we saw that the signature dome of the Pantheon was covered in scaffolding around all 360 degrees. More construction was occurring in the front of the building where bleachers were being erected for a special event. We had been hoping to enter the Pantheon, which we though was a museum (it is actually a mausoleum), but it was closed do to the event (the induction of 4 new French Nationals).
A bit disappointed we headed to out next destination, Sacre-Coeur Basilica. Sacre-Coeur, or Sacred Heart, is a large church and the highest point in Paris. It sits on a hill to the north of the city and overlooks the rest of Paris. At the base of the church is Square Louise Michel, a large green park which climbs the hill to the church. I enjoyed seeing this park because it is featured in Amelie, my favorite movie. Sacre-Coeur was free to enter and a very impressive church with many mosaics and other art pieces. The tower and crypt are also open to the public but cost a fee. Around the church was a small farmers’ market with tents selling canned pâtés, escargots, and olive oils.
We walked around the Montmartre area and looked for lunch. We headed towards Place du Tertre, a small square in the heart of the Montmartre neighborhood. Place du Tertre was filled with street artists, cafes, and tourists. Later we learned from my parents, that Montmartre is particularly known for its many artists and galleries. Just off of the main square we ate lunch at Chez Plumeau. For our first meal in France we sampled escargots, french onion soup, and more. Jon’s main meal was a burger and I had a salad, both were good but the French shared appetizers and the soup were the highlights of our meal. Alvin and Yue Chao also had egg soufflés (which we didn’t care for), duck (which we loved), and fish.
After lunch we bid Yue Chao au revoir as he headed off to a local jujitsu gym. The rest of us took the metro to the Arc de Triomphe. The Arc De Triomphe sits in the middle of a busy traffic circle. Tourists, including us, wait for the lights to change and then run into the road snap photographs. The actual arc itself is reached through an underground passage. Before coming up under the arc, we bought tickets to enter (€9.50). Alvin was able to use the museum pass, which he had purchased, to skip the ticket line. We entered through one leg of the arc and climbed a spiral stair up. The top of the arc is a small museum mostly occupied by the gift shop. Outside, on top of the arc, is an observation deck where we took pictures before coming down another spiral staircase in a different leg of the arc.
The arc is most impressive from directly underneath. It is very large and almost every surface is covered with decorative carvings. The larger than life reliefs on the outsides are just as impressive as the dense floral patterns underneath. Below the arc is the tomb of the unknown French solider.
From the Arc we walked down Champs Elysees. Given its reputation for designer stores, I found many of the stores along Champs Elysees to be very approachable brands. We only stopped once, and that was at Laduree, a famous macaroon bakery. All along the street we had passed people carrying green packages from Laduree. Laduree had a cafe as well as a to-go shop. Inside the shop beautiful and colorful pastries are lined up behind a counter. We purchased four mini-macaroons (€12) to try later that evening.
Instead of heading straight to dinner, where we had reservations, we went to Alvin’s rental flat to rendezvous with Yue Chao. Dinner that evening was at a restaurant Alvin and Yue Chao had seen earlier and wanted to try. It was called Le Bistro du Perigord and was in walking distance from their apartment. Bistro du Peridord offered a very nice 3 course meal for €28, although they did tell us that the meal sizes are smaller than ordering off of the regular ala carte menu. Each meal began with an appetizer so we started with escargots. For our main dishes I had the french onion soup (upset I had passed on it at lunch that day) while the boys, who ordered off of the 3-course menu, had duck, fish in citron sauce, and more duck. The 3 course menu also came with desserts including flan and a chocolate sampler. Before saying goodbye for the evening, we decided to walk to Notre Dame and see it lit up.
Day 3 – Saturday, May 23, 2015
We slept in more than I think Alvin would have liked, but we finally got ourselves up before delaying too long. From our flat we took a metro and RER (local train) to Versailles where we met the boys. Versailles is a Unesco World Heritage site. We had heard that lines to get into Versailles get very long, and that due to the holiday weekend (Pentecost) it might be worse than normal. Still, we delayed entering the palace until after eating breakfast near the train station. Alvin and Yue Chao had museum passes and didn’t need to purchase tickets. Jon and I bought tickets online earlier that morning (€15). However, we were shocked to see that the line for ticket holders was incredibly long. It took us 45 minutes to enter the palace, which is a much shorter time than we had expected by the look of the line.
Inside the palace, we were given audioguides to take with us. The Palace is thoroughly decorated and sparkles with gold embossing from the outside. White marble statues watch over the courtyard from the roof. The first few rooms were exhibits about the palace history, but the audio guides didn’t work very well in those rooms. Next we walked through the rooms that the royals had lived in. The inside of the palace is decorated grandly with hardly a square inch which isn’t painted, wall papered, or etched. Most rooms on the tour had painted ceilings dedicated to the roman gods. The walls were draped in expensive fabrics and oil paintings. The main attraction in the palace is the Hall of Mirrors, a long banquet hall with windows on one wall and mirrors on the other side. The room, like most, was filled with tourists including large guided groups which pushed together and bottle necked the doors. The palace has a few small cafes and we stopped for a bite to eat before exploring the gardens.
The gardens (€9) are very large and were better maintained than many other palace grounds we’d seen during our year of travels. Beyond the expansive and deliberate landscaping, Versailles is special because of the numerous fountains on its grounds. At various times through the day the fountains are scheduled to run. I recommend visiting the gardens at 3:30pm-5:00pm when the fountains are turned on continuously (with the exception of the Neptune Fountain which is only turned on at 5:20pm). We enjoyed strolling the grounds and finding the different fountains, however we only managed to see half of the area.
At 5:00pm, when the other fountains were turning off, we headed to the Neptune Fountain. A crowd gathered and at 5:20pm music began to play. The fountain spouts erupted, but they remained stationary and uniform for the entire show. There was not ‘dancing’ water so to speak. When the show ended at 5:30pm there was a rush for the train station as everyone headed back to Paris at once. Ticket lines were long and the train was standing room only.
We metro’d to Bastille where we were meeting a tour group in an hour. Looking for a quick meal we ate at Pizza Julia, a small to-go pizza shop with four stools. The pizzas were good and came quickly.
At 8pm we met the Sandeman’s tour guide and over 30 other tourists for the Pub Crawl Tour (€15). We were given bracelets and led to the first bar. At each bar we were given a shot when we entered. At the first bar we had some drink specials including a terrible sangria and a slightly better orange cinnamon punch. The second bar was The Bootleg, an Irish pub which was one of our favorites. It was small and tightly packed, but the bar tender was great showing us how to win at the coin drop game on the bar, letting us hold a fake machine gun when Irish car bombs were ordered, and even giving Yue Chao a flaming shot of Samboca. The third bar (possibly Le hideout) was dark and vaguely reminded me of a Budapest ruin bar with second-hand (and gross) furniture. The last bar was a ‘pub club’ which meant it had a dance floor. Luckily for Jon and me, Bastille is within walking distance to our flat and we headed home.
Day 4 – Sunday, May 24, 2015
Saturday proved to be too much for me, and I paid the price on Sunday morning. While I stayed in bed, Jon met Alvin and Yue Chao for a few hours to explore the Marche Bastille, a Thursday and Sunday morning market close to our flat. At the market, French cheese was purchased, as well as East African food for lunch. The boys also walked to the Place des Vosges, a nearby park and one of the most beautiful in the city.
By dinner time I was back on my feet, so we met Alvin and Yue Chao for a farewell dinner. They had made reservations at a restaurant where they could try rabbit, the last remaining French dish they wanted to sample. Au Pied du Sacre Coeur was back in Montmartre. The restaurant was very small with only a handful of tables. The waitress was nice, and we started our meal with free glasses of wine thanks to an online (Yelp) coupon. The rabbit on the menu was sold-out, but they had a rabbit special of the day which the boys were able to order. Between the four of us we had frog legs, terrine de lapin (rabbit headcheese), a puff pastry with escargots, seafood bouillabaisse, 2 stuffed rabbit legs, leg of lamb, duck, and four desserts. The menu was very good, and I think that everyone enjoyed themselves.
Day 5 – Monday, May 25, 2015
Without Alvin and Yue Chao around to motivate us to get out, we spent the day sleeping in, working on our computers, and being lazy. Jon was able to put in several hours of work, while I spent my time securing an apartment for our upcoming move to Barcelona.
Around 6pm Jon started to look for restaurants on Yelp. It was a nice surprise to find that Yelp, one of our favorite restaurants apps at home, is popular and reliable in France. Jon chose two french restaurants within walking distance from our apartment. Dinner hours at at least one of the restaurants didn’t start until 7pm, so we bided our time until then. We set out for the ‘bistro’ because it sounded more casual and I wasn’t overly hungry. When we arrived to Le Tabarin, it was empty. The single waiter spoke some English, but the menu was in French without an English version. We also learned that because Monday was a national holiday, the restaurant wasn’t stocked with fresh fish as they normally would be. Jon ordered the duck confit. His meal was good, but not as filling as it looked. It was nice to see the duck served with a side of salad and roasted potatoes that we really enjoyed. I ordered a ravioli appetizer and salad. The appetizer was ravioles du royans gratinees au foie gras and my salad was called Aligot de l’aubrac. The raviolis were very good, but also very rich. They were served in a boiling hot gravy that I’m guessing was mostly butter. Aligot turned out to be mashed potatoes and cheese, another very decadent dish.
Day 6 – Tuesday, May 26, 2015
Not wanting to waste an entire second day, we decided to go out at 2pm. I found an ‘off the beaten path‘ park and we walked there, stopping to get a ham and cheese crepe along the way. The Promenade Plantée is a park built above the street on old trolly tracks, much like New York’s Highline Park. The park goes for 4.5km, and we walked half of it, to where it merges into Coulée verte René-Dumont Park. The stroll was pleasant and the park was pretty with lots of flowers along the way. We sat for a while in the park and decided to walk home along the streets. Unfortunately the streets weren’t very interesting. We passed a statue at the Place de la Nation roundabout but nothing else of note.
When we went out again it was for dinner to Chez Janou. We found Chez Janou on Yelp, and it felt like a local place although most of the tables near us seemed to be speaking English. We didn’t have a reservation but were lucky that they were able to seat us 30 minutes later. We ordered meals which had been shown on Yelp: pasta with escargot and seafood risotto. Both were delicious and it was nice to have pasta for a change, but the real highlight of dinner was the chocolate mousse dessert. For €9 a giant bowl of mousse, that could have fed 10 people, was put on our table. It was very rich and we could only eat one scoop from the bowl. Unfortunately we couldn’t bring the extra home. On a side note, the table next to us reported to the waitress a stolen phone while they were eating there. We don’t know the details, (sounds like the phone was taken out of a purse next to the table) but it was a good reminder to be vigilant.
Day 7 – Wednesday, May 27, 2015
Following our normal pattern, we didn’t leave the apartment until mid-afternoon. This time we ventured a bit further and took the metro to the Eiffel Tower. We had no agenda or goal, and we walked around taking pictures and trying a few perspective pictures. Many people were picnicking on the Champ de Mars and we made note to bring snacks for a picnic if we went back. Since the French Open was in progress, a huge tennis ball was hanging from the middle of the Eiffel Tower and fans were watching the matches from big screens on the lawn.
From the Eiffel Tower we walked towards some other green areas, the Esplanade des Invalides and Esplanade Jacques Chaban-Delmas. We weren’t very taken by the esplanades, but near Invalides was the Army Museum in a large building with manicured gardens and large gold embossed dome. The dome, as it turns out, is Le Tombeau de Napoléon.
Already tired and a bit sore we took the metro home. For dinner we wanted to a break from the French food, so we tried some Asian. Our first choice restaurant was closed, so we went to Thai Imperial, whose food wasn’t Thai (it was Chinese). We agreed it wasn’t very good.
Day 8 – Thursday, May 28, 2015
Thursday was our next chance to visit the Marche Bastille. The market is open from 7:00am-2:30pm, and we arrived towards the end of the day. A few of the shops were starting to take down their wears, and some of the fish stands were well picked over. I was actually surprised (at least on Thursday) that there seemed to be a high number of clothing stands instead of the produce I had expected. We spent our time browsing and trying to decide on meals that we could cook at home in the next few evenings. By the time the market closed, we had purchased scallops, mushrooms, asparagus, peppers, onions, fresh raviolis, lemons, grapefruit, hot peppers, sausage, and beef from a butcher. Before leaving the market, we stopped at one of the prepared food stands for lunch. We chose Lebanese, which besides for selling pre-made grape leaves and the such, also prepared sandwiches and pizza like crepes.
That evening we were excited to cook dinner for ourselves. Our meal consisted of a vegetable and beef stir-fry with mushrooms, peppers, and onions, and asparagus on the side.
Day 9 – Friday, May 29, 2015
Late in the day we walked to St. Martin’s Canal. We arrived just as a boat passed through the first lock and draw bridge. A few people sat along the canal and further down was small park with lots more people sitting out in the grass. There weren’t many cafes actually along the canal, but I was taken by the concept of Pink Flamingo Pizza which gives customers a balloon so they can deliver pizza to each picnic location. We got lunch at a Cantine de Quentin which had good reviews on yelp. The kitchen was about to close when we arrived, but they let us order. I had salmon tartar while Jon had steak,
After eating we walked further up the canal. Not much changed along the walk and we decided to eventually turn around and walk home. We stopped along the way at a grocery store to re-stock the kitchen before Marisa arrived the next day. For dinner we cooked more food from the Marche Bastille. I made sea scallops in brown butter and lemon sauce. Jon made the ravioli and a mushroom spaghetti sauce.
Please see our follow up posts, Paris, France – Part 2 and Paris; Travel Insight for information on Paris sights, visas for Americans, transportation, restaurants recommendations and more.