Tuesday, 3 January 2012

The Paris List - *update!*

You may remember my blog post 'The Paris List' (http://movingfoodie.blogspot.com/2011/10/paris-list.html) that I wrote in preparation for my long-awaited and much anticipated trip to Paris in December. Here is my take on the list now that I have visited the French capital. Bear in mind that I stuck religiously to a strict itinerary; I was there when the city was full of Christmas cheer; and (much to my surprise) I received a delightfully welcome marriage proposal during the trip! (So expect a blog post brimming with enthusiasm and a romanticized, although possibly slightly delusional, evaluation of the weekend! ;)).

Three important things have happened this Christmas. I've finally visited Paris, after years and years of romanticizing about it. Whilst in Paris, I became engaged to my gorgeous boy. And I've finally found the time to write about it. So here's my Paris List - of must-sees, what I'm still daydreaming about, and some other little surprises I found along the way.

The Paris List

1. Ile de la Cite

You can't imagine the city spread out over islands, linked by bridges across the River Seine, until you've visited Paris and marvelled at how compact it is, even though you have to cross water to explore it all. Ile de la Cite is delightful. Home to the impressive Cathedrale de Notre-Dame, with its beautiful and imposing gothic architecture, the island is well worth exploring. The buildings are exquisite, the views across the river are breathtaking, and there are beautiful hidden finds to explore, like the romantic (and tiny!) tree-lined garden Square du Vert-Galant at the point of the island next to the bridge, Pont Neuf.

We gazed in awe at the gargoyles and huge sparkling Christmas tree outside Notre Dame and then visited the Crypte Archeologique beneath it, with the remains of the warren of buildings that were build upon. Pretty impressive stuff and a bargain at about 4 euros each. The ticket attendant greeted me with a Joyeux Noel and then, sweetly, checked how to wish us a Merry Christmas in English.

Must-sees for our next visit: the exquisite stained glass of Sainte-Chapelle - unfortunately covered for refurbishment; and the interior of the Cathedrale de Notre-Dame.

Best bits: We took a boat trip along the river at night, from the Vedettes du Pont Neuf boat dock next to the Square du-Vert Galant, and it was an absolutely beautiful way to see the major sights. It was very windy and cold on the top deck but we braved the winter weather and were rewarded by an amazingly breathtaking view of the Eiffel Tower, lit up by a million flashing fairy lights for ten minutes!

2. Champs-Elysees

We did expect parts of Paris to be busy and teeming with tourists, but the Champs-Elysees was absolutely horrendous. The traffic was almost as scary as the hundreds of people all trying to cross the road at the same point to take photographs of the Arc De Triomphe, and there were lots of tacky Christmas markets that we swiftly avoided. Whilst doing so, we stumbled upon the delightful postage stamp market on the corner of Avenues Gabriel and Marianu, which I had been daydreaming about for weeks. Result!

Whilst taking a somewhat off the beaten track route to the Louvre, we also discovered a fascinating row of impressive houses and official buildings with immense security - presumably home to France's top officials, diplomats and the US embassy. The boy was super excited by the sign forbidding laptop use in the area and crowd control fences similar to those employed outside the Houses of Parliament in London. We suddenly emerged into the mayhem at the Place de la Concorde and snapped away at the gold obelisk, big wheel and gorgeous fountains. It was a beautiful day by this time so all of our Champs-Elysees grumblings were quickly forgotten as we crossed over the Place and peeked into the delicate and stately Jardins des Tuileries.

After a longer afternoon of exploring than planned, we decided to queue for the Musees des Arts Decoratifs, de la Mode et du Textile, et de la Publicite, and save the Louvre for our next trip. Our favourite part of the museum was the art deco / art nouveau furniture and the upmarket cafe overlooking the gardens (my Coca-Cola was 8 euros!!).

3. Opera district

The 19th century arcades of the Opera district were right up our street (*boom boom*) and there were some fabulous shop windows full of brightly coloured and intricately decorated cakes and sweets. The Place de La Madeleine, and the church of the same name, were spectacular, although very busy. We searched high and low for the highly commended Art Nouveau public toilets nearby to no avail, and eventually vowed to find them on our next visit and hopped on the Metro to head up to Montmartre.

4. Les Halles

After being told that this area is nothing more than a horrendous shopping mall, I felt that it deserved a more positive mention. We came across the huge redevelopment of Les Halles Forum area when we were slightly *uh-hum* lost making our way up from Rue de Rivoli to Opera Garnier. It looks pretty impressive and includes attractive squares, beautiful churches as a backdrop, and lots of interesting shops, restaurants and bars all over the area. If you're not a transport geek glaze over now, but the regeneration of the Metro station looked amazing and, I imagine, much needed at such a busy interchange.

5. The Marais and Bastille

Well, where do I begin? This area will now forever be very close to our hearts. We stayed in, and fell in love with, the Marais district and it was my absolute favourite place to wander around taking in the Paris atmosphere! We stayed at the Ibis Hotel on Rue Breguet; 2 minutes walk from the Metro and 5 minutes amble from the Place de la Bastille. Amazingly central but yet quiet and safe, the area was dotted with tree lined avenues, quaint little cafes and bistros, grocery shops, and handy Spar-type supermarkets. When we emerged from the Metro at Breguet-Sabin we could not believe that we could see the Colonne de Juilet (the imposing column and Spirit of Liberty to commemorate the July Revolution of 1830 that saw autocratic Charles X replaced by 'citizen King' Louis-Phillipe) from where we were staying. It is a gorgeous sight against a bright blue winter's sky. We got engaged here too. :-)

We were happy to simply wander around the Marais, enjoying the old, secluded streets and lively bars and cafes, but we stuck to the List and sought out Victor Hugo's house and museum at the Place des Vosges. The Place on its own was a glorious sight, accessed by an old archway and featuring some impressive cloisters bordering a typically Parisian park and fountain; a little glimpse of times gone by in the centre of the city. The museum of Victor Hugo's house and life was fascinating and would have been even better if my French was a little more advanced (or if the museum provided an explanation of some of the more important pieces in English).

Next time we would like to spend an hour or so at the museum of French history at the Palais Soubise on the rue des Francs-Bourgeois and the Picasso museum on rue de Thorigny, which was unfortunately closed for renovation until 2012.

6. Ile St-Louis

A tiny island just across the river from the Marais district, this is touted as the most romantic part of Paris and I absolutely agree. I loved the Ile St-Louis, for its quaint narrow streets, its interesting buildings, and a mix of quirky and traditional cafes serving amazing hot chocolate. The best chocolate pot I sampled was at La Charlotte de l'Isle, served in a huge cappuccino cup with a spoon to lap it up (although the consistency was just thin enough for me to drink from the cup, which felt most decadent!). The views of the river from all sides of the island were gorgeous.

7. Quartier Latin

We both loved the Latin Quarter. The riverside quais and bouquinistes, selling old books, postcards and prints from green boxes along the riverside from square Viviani eastwards were just as I had dreamed. We visited the crypts of Voltaire, Hugo and Zola at the Pantheon and were blown away by both the exterior and interior of this amazing architectural example. There was also no queue, which was a massive bonus, as we hadn't planned for as many queues during December as there were (especially for entry to the Musee d'Orsay). My highlight of the area were the Jardin de Luxembourg and the Fontaine de Medicis; fabulously romantic and beautiful. Turning a corner in the Jardin, we encountered a huge number of people dotted around doing Tai Chi! Around the next corner, in a bright pool of Sunday morning sunshine, families and couples lay prone on bences, faces to sky, coffee cups in hands, enjoying their weekends. It was a fantastic sight.

8. The Eiffel Tower

I've touched upon the big part the Eiffel Tower played in our favourite aspects of our weekend in Paris; seeing it illuminated at night was fantastic. In fact, I would say the best view we had of the Eiffel Tower was from the river. It was equally breathtaking from the ground at the tower's feet, but it is such a tourist trap that the massive queues and flashing neon lights of the lift and stair entrances kind of ruin the magic of the symbol of Paris. Something we saw whilst at the Eiffel Tower did make it really special; a Bride and Groom were in full wedding dress taking their vows with the Tower in the background, with just a Registrar and a couple of witnesses to hand. It looked freezing (for the Bride) but fun!

9. Montmartre

When I first wrote this list, I thought I would be saving the best until last with Montmartre. We were a little disappointed. And I was very disappointed by being disappointed! We arrived by Metro to Abbesses and set about exploring the less crowded route to the Butte and Sacre Coeur via the place des Abbesses and the rue Lepic. The intriguing streets and picturesque squares that we had imagined did not materialise. We forged on to the top, to find that Sacre Coeur was surrounded by tacky Christmas stalls and crowds of tourists all craning to get a view over the city. I couldn't help but be disappointed that I couldn't even see the Eiffel Tower (in fact, I think I exclaimed this loudly. Well, it's Paris, you expect the Eiffel Tower to feature in every view don't you?!). We had a lovely aperitif in an art nouveau styled cafe on the Place du Tertre, served by a friendly waiter who appreciated my attempts at French. Not so at our lunch spot, however. Good food but arrogant and awkward service. I need to learn how to say "I can speak French but you're speaking really quickly and you haven't even brought us a menu yet!!".

Next time, we will seek out the tiny Montmartre vineyard and visit the Dali gallery, before heading back into town for more classy establishments and better service!
Next time

On our next trip to Paris, we'd like to venture a bit further afield to check out the trendy areas around the Canal St-Martin; famous graves at the Pere-Lachaise cemetery; the wine warehouses at Cour Saint-Emilion; and for a stroll along the disused railway line and viaduct of the Promenade Plantee. I was desperate to lose myself in the grottos and temples of Parc des Buttes-Chaumont, and the terraces and waterfalls of Parc de Belleville, but those wanderings will also have to wait until another visit. We also unfortunately ran out of time to visit the Tour Montparnasse, the 56 floor skyscraper with incredible views of the city including the Eiffel Tower, and, something I had been weirdly excited about for weeks, the eerie catacombs - skulls and all - at the place Denfert-Rochereau.

Food and Drink

Writing about eating out in Paris is a whole other subject to blog about. We had some amazing meals, the best were had here:
  • Chartier, 7 rue du faubourg montmartre - more for the atmosphere than the food
  • Bistrot du Peintre, 116 Avenue Ledru Rolin - laid back, art deco bistro with fabulous starters and reliable main courses. It's advisable to book in advance
  • Les Philosophes, 28 rue Vieille du Temple - jam-packed with locals, amazing plats du jour. Go for the experience alone.
A few holiday snaps...

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