French versions of king cakes are everywhere.
Place des Vosges is highly recommended to visitors and rightfully so. It is a large square just a few blocks from the Bastille Opera (the new one) in the trendy Marais area of Paris.
The square is surrounded on all four sides by matching imposing buildings, generally four floors each, with vaulted galleries on the ground containing art galleries and a few coffee shops. Place des Vosges was the first urban planning project in Paris, developed in the very early 17th century by King Henry IV. It was originally known as the Palace Royale, because that’s what the first building was, although no French king or queen actually lived there.
Louis XIII was married there to celebrate the square’s inauguration in 1612, and Cardinal Richelieu commissioned an equestrian statue to be erected to Louis later in the century. The original statue was torn down and melted by the French Revolutionaries about 250 years later, and a new one was erected about 50 years after that. (Is there a lesson here for New Orleans politicians?)
The most significant attraction at Place des Vosges is Victor Hugo’s apartment, where the beloved father of the French Republic and prolific writer lived for 16 years before he was exiled. Hugo’s apartment is a fine example of a house museum. Rather than attempt to simply recreate his living quarters, the apartment is designed to tell the story of his life from his earliest years to his deathbed.
Some of the rooms do faithfully recreate his Place des Vosges apartment, but others showcase his life in exile in Guernsey, then later at the end of his life back in Paris but living at a different location. The final room in the tour replicates Hugo’s bedroom, including the actual bed in which he died. Ironically, a painting of his long-time mistress, Juliette Drouet, just before she died, hangs in the doorway to the entrance of Hugo’s final bedroom.
The current temporary exhibition on the first floor showcases Hugo’s apparent boundless sexual appetites with a collection of 18th and 19th century art and sculpture that can only be considered pornography by even current standards. In some ways, it is reassuring to see that certain practices are timeless.
At the suggestion from a friend, we visited Musée Jacquemart-André, built in the late 19th century on prestigious Blvd. Hausemann just a few blocks from the Arc de Triomphe. (www.musee-jacquemart-andre.com)
The home was built to house the couple’s art collection, which consisted of innumerable paintings, tapestries, sculptures and furniture they collected all over Europe. Upon their death, they bequeathed the home and contents to the French government to maintain the collection of art and architecture intact.
The audio guide discreetly calls the couple upper middle class. We would use the term filthy rich. Nonetheless, it is an interesting tour, although a bit pricey at 12 euros for admission plus three more each for the audioguide. A bit more pricey for me was the loss of my good scarf in the cloakroom. It just disappeared from my coat.
We ate at home early Sunday evening so we could walk across the street to La Pomme d’Eve, our little underground bar that shows NFL RedZone. We watched football, although very little of the Saints game, since it had no playoff implications, while we enjoyed Havana Club rum on the rocks.
There is just something different about Havana Club. Even the cheapest three-year-old white rum version is smoother and more flavorful than any other popular brand we get at home.
And there is something different about La Pomme d’Eve. Located in a deep underground in a vaulted cavern, it is open only sporadically. We were the only customers in the place the entire time, but a large bouncer/doorman stands at the street entrance to screen patrons as they enter.
Like I said, there is something different about this place. But the Saints won.
Sunday means Bloody Marys, so on this chilly, rainy Sunday, we headed out on a mission to the source of the tasty beverage–Harry’s New York Bar, where Hemingway hung out and the purported inventor of the Bloody Mary.
But first, we stopped at the Place de la Concorde on the way to see if we could get into the Hotel de la Marine (the Navy Department) for a free visit during its two-day-only opening to the public. This magnificent building houses the largest collection of 18th century furniture in Paris. Most furniture in the great palaces was destroyed in the French Revolution, but somehow the contents of the Hotel de la Marine were spared.
Unfortunately, half of Paris had the same idea, and the lines snaked around the block. Not willing to stand around for an hour or so in the rain, we scuttled back down the Metro to find Harry’s Bar just a couple of blocks from the Garnier Opera.
Again we were stymied–Harry’s is closed on Sunday. No great loss. They charge 14 euros for a Bloody Mary. No Bloody Mary can be that good.
So back to St. Germain we went and decided to visit Cafe de Conti down the street from last summer’s hotel, the Dauphine St. Germain, a gem. Conti’s Bloody Mary was pretty good, but I was shocked to be told that they do not accept credit cards for payment. They had just taken my credit card the week before and several times during our visit last summer. This was the first time I had experienced rude treatment in Paris.
You don’t argue in someone else’s language, so I paid the tab and we walked out, never to return to Cafe Conti again. Back in the apartment later in the day, I made sure to share our experience on Trip Advisor and Google.
To cap off a frustrating day, all the regular grocery stores were closed after 1 p.m., and we were dangerously low on wine. I wandered up and down rue Monge, looking for an open store in vain. Finally, I settled for a mini-market that was overpriced for wine, any port in a storm…
Saturday is the day for two old favorites–Sacre Coeur at Montmarte and Pere Lachaise Cemetery.
As we left the Metro atop at Montmarte, I noticed everyone was herding at the elevator to leave the station. I had forgotten that it is 90–yes, 90–steps to the street. Too late to turn around in the crowds. Up the stairs we went.
We gladly invested another train ticket for the funicular up to the basilica, where another stairway awaits.
As we reached the top of the stairs to Sacre Coeur, the trinket sellers were hustling down the steps, their blankets drawn up, as the local police car patrolled by.
We see these guys everywhere and in all cities. They display their wares on a blanket with loops at each corner so they grab the ropes into a bag in a nano-second when the local authorities approach. They were out in force New Year’s Eve at the Eiffel Tower, and they populate tourist-heavy spots like Sacre Coeur in droves.
As we worked out way into the church embedded in a thick stream of visitors, I thought to myself this was the perfect time to visit a church like Sacre Coeur, since it the middle of Saturday, and Mass will not be an issue.
Wouldn’t you know it–we walked right into the 11:15 a.m. Saturday Mass. Right at the moment of the Consecration.
We shuffled along with the crowds along the side, keeping silent. We sat down to respectfully watch the Communion ceremony, then watched as the officiating priest ended Mass with a remote control that lifted a curtain above the original altar revealing the most spectacular monstrance I had ever seen. This magnificent instrument must stand a good five feet, supported by near life-sized gilded angels. The entire display was dramatically lighted from above. The Catholic Church knows how to make a statement.
Having seen the light, we actually walked down the stairs to catch a train to the other world–Cemetery Pere Lachaise, final resting place of more than a million residents, including scores of the famous.
Pere Lachaise, named for Louis XIV’s Jesuit confessor, is one of the few historic cemeteries in Paris, since the residents of the oldest ones were disinterred and placed in the catacombs that weave underneath the city. We toured the catacombs last summer; they are worth a spooky visit.
Lynn had had enough walking and does not share my fascination with cemeteries, so she planted herself on a park bench near the entrance to wait on my visit to Jim Morrison and Edith Piaf.
Morrison’s gravesite is covered with flowers, and the tree in front is covered with chewing gum. The cemetery officials have shrouded the bottom six feet of the tree with removable, replaceable bamboo screens to preserve the tree from the ravages of tourist deposits. I don’t remember this from before. What goes through peoples’ minds?
Not far down the lane from Morrison’s repose is a much more recent one–the grave of a 21-year-old woman killed at Bataclan. There were no gawking crowds here, but her resting place stopped me in my tracks. She looked very pretty in her photo.
Edith Piaf’s grave is small, nondescript and all the way up in the far top righthand corner of the cemetery. Her stage name is engraved on the side, as her true family name was Gassion. Her initials, PF, are engraved large on an urn at the top of the black polished sarcophagus for fans to place flowers.
After a small panic attack trying to find Lynn in the cemetery, I was happy to retreat to the bistro across the street for a refreshing beer.
After rolling in at 2 a.m. New Year’s morning, we did what all thinking mature Americans should do the next day–lay about and watch football.
Well, not exactly watch. You can pick up the ESPN gamecast of football games on your computer/iPad. It’s not exactly like watching, but you don’t have commercial breaks either.
One reason we chose to stay in Paris for nearly a month is so we can enjoy a lay day, rest our legs and not feel like we are squandering precious time. Hardly anyone else was out on the streets either on New Year’s Day.
We did, however, pop down to rue des Ecoles to have a Bloody Mary about 4 p.m. at L’Authre Bistro. Not bad, but not a full glass either.
Except for Le Bombardier, which is a British pub, the standard Parisian Bloody Mary is tomato juice and vodka served with Worstershire, Tabasco and celery salt on the side. Adding the right amounts of all three make a reasonably passable Bloody Mary.
We plan to try the one at Harry’s Bar, where the Bloody Mary was supposedly invented. That will be our mission for our last week in Paris.
We decided to celebrate New Year’s Eve in Paris at the heart of the celebration but not in the crowds, so we booked a cruise on the river. Actually, the real center of the Paris New Year’s Eve party is on Champs Elysées, where the Arc de Triomphe displays the annual light show. But after two experiences with the crowds there, Lynn wanted nothing to do with Paris’s most famous boulevard.
Bateau Parisiens offers an overpriced dinner cruise but a reasonable regular cruise that includes a split of Champagne for each passenger and an expansive view of the Eiffel Tower at midnight.
After another tasty osso buco dinner at home, we left for the train station early at 8 p.m. to make sure we could get to the Eiffel Tower and the boat dock in time for the cruise. To our surprise, the RER train station and the train itself were all but empty. And the ride was free–metro authorities open up all the trains on New Year’s Eve to move vehicular traffic off the streets.
Once we arrived at our stop, however, the crowds built rapidly at the Eiffel Tower. Street vendors were everywhere, hawking bottles and glasses of wine, lighted plastic Eiffels, hot mulled wine, the hated selfie sticks, glowing self-launched helicopters, roasted nuts and huge bowls of steaming grilled onions and sausage. Altogether, the scene created a sensory overload of people, languages, smells and a generally festive atmosphere, despite the ever-present threat of terrorism. Police were out in force on the bridges, along the river quays and under the Eiffel Tower itself, which was closed except for the high-end restaurants.
The crowd was somewhat down-scale, mostly young adults and families, many with toddlers in strollers. What was rally lacking was a place to purchase an adult beverage other than wine on the street. The nearest bistro to the Eiffel Tower area is across the Seine and all the way around the back of the Trocadero, which is a walk of many blocks. The boat company could make a fortune setting up a temporary bar for passengers waiting to board.
After passing through the security line twice, Lynn did not want to leave the ramp again, so we wound up being almost the first passengers on the boat, just behind a couple from Huntsville, AL. He was oh-so-friendly and chatty about their various New Year’s Eve adventures that we silently but firmly made sure to go in the opposite direction when we boarded.
Bateau Parisien presented each of us a small bag containing an ice cold split of Champagne, a plastic flute (mine was cracked, so we had to share), a small bag of madeleines, a noisemaker and a party hat. The Champagne was quite nice; the total of a full bottle lasted exactly the length of the trip.
If you have ever taken the boat trip on the Seine, you appreciate how beautiful Paris is from the water. It was especially so this evening, as the Eiffel Tower was awash in lights that changed to a dazzling, dancing LED display every 15 minutes or so.
At the stroke of midnight, all the cruise boats gathered at the base of the tower to ring in the New Year. Most of the passengers climbed to the top, but we could see just fine from the warmth of the inside. Imagine some 15-20 boats hovering for five to ten minutes using only their thrusters waiting for the light show to begin on the Eiffel Tower. I was more fascinated by the skill of the skippers to keep us all from crashing together.
As soon as it was over, the boat docked, we disembarked, walked back to the train station, once again empty, and took the RER C, once again mostly empty, back to our Latin Quarter, which was–you guessed it–mostly if not completely empty.
We really wanted a bit of a nightcap to finish off the New Year’s celebration, but virtually every bistro was shut down for the evening. However, now that we have lived in our neighborhood for better than two weeks, we knew exactly where the bar doesn’t close–The Bombardier, a British pub across from the Pantheon.
And The Bombardier was indeed festive and noisy, with American oldies music playing in the background, student-aged partiers drinking heavily and two American oldies who just wanted a glass of wine and a Scotch to end a most celebratory evening. We drank up and walked the eerily quiet streets home to our four flights of stairs. Luckily, we had had the foresight to set up the bed before we left, so all we had to do was fall in. We don’t stay up until 2 a.m. very often.
Another friend who has been to Paris before and is a fellow foodie recommended we try Le Petite Perigourdine, which happens to be located only two blocks from our apartment on the corner of rue des Ecoles and rue Vallette. We have walked by the place dozens of times.
We were seated at a window table on the Vallette side where a row of empty wine bottles was visible from the street. I had wondered about these as we passed by so many times, and now I understood–they were all empty bottles of Chateau Mouton-Rothschild of different vintages.
Sitting next to us were two young women engaged in a pleasantly animated conversation that did not stop the entire time we were there. They went through a full bottle of wine, then added a pichet for good measure. As far as I could tell, their dinner consisted of one shared plate of prosciutto.
We split an appetizer of the terrine, which the waiter brought out in an entire foot-long dish right out of the kitchen. He offered the entire thing to us, and when Lynn laughed and demurred, he proceeded to slice off about a two-inch section for her. Then another two-inch slice for me. One would have been more than we could eat. Two would have been an entire meal.
The signature dish here is their creamed potatoes, which come out to the table in a copper pot, then ladled out to the plate from far above. The potatoes are so thick, they must be eaten like pasta, twirling a fork around to create a serving. It makes a nice show, but unfortunately, the taste did not live up to the presentation.
The rest of the meal certainly had plenty of flavor, however, putting this little restaurant a good cut above the average.
Lynn ordered the veal hangar steak, which was served in a roasted half eggplant, the entire dish swimming in a foie gras sauce. Every element worked together to perfection.
My steak was equally delicious, nicely charred on the outside and perfectly medium rare on the inside.
A most embarrassing moment came when the waiter politely showed us that we were using our steak knives on the wrong side. All we could do was laugh and blush. The shape of the blades really does look backwards. We felt like stupid Americans, which we are.
One of our friends who is knowledgeable about Paris recommended rue Cler to us as his favorite street in the city. Located between the Eiffel Tower and the Army Museum, rue Cler is a short street, most of which has been reserved as a pedestrian mall lined on both sides with retailers of clothing, groceries, fine pastries, seafood and the ever-present bistros. In essence, just like any other block in Paris, but without vehicular traffic.
I actually found exactly the wool sweater I had been looking for since we arrived and at a most reasonable price, the same as a lesser sweater was selling for at Monoprix, France’s version of Target. Since winter will be settling in any day now, my new sweater will come in handy, likely as early as Thursday for New Year’s Eve.
After walking rue Cler, we crossed the bridge to the Rive Droit and stopped for a mid-day beer at Le Grand Corona on the corner fronting the bridge and the Seine. Grand Corona is grand all right–17 euros for two Kronenbergs. That’s more than an entire meal in our neighborhood.
After downing our beers, we found Avenue Montaigne that runs from the river to bisect Champs Elysées. Avenue Montaigne is the Fifth Avenue of Paris, lined with stores bearing all the biggest names in fashion from Armani to Vuitton. They all had black-suited security guards standing guard at the front door, likely to keep riff raff like us from entering. Champs Elysees was still packed with crowds milling back and forth among the Christmas village tents of cotton candy, mulled wine, roasted nuts, crepes and various souvenirs.
When we finally worked our way down to the Pont Alexander III, we walked past long lines of parents and children snaked around the blocks surrounding both the Grand Palace and the Petit Palace. Both were presenting Christmas shows inside their respective buildings–at 20 eu for adults and 15 for kids.
Military and police were out in force by the dozens, all armed with automatic weapons. Clearly, recent events both here and elsewhere in Europe have everyone on high alert.