Our plane touched down early on Sunday morning at Charles de Gaulle. Our simple plan was to get our bags and take the RER from the airport to our hotel in the 6e arrondissment and get off at the Luxembourg stop. What is it they say about the “best laid plans”?
We actually did get our bags from the baggage claim with a fair amount of ease and, being repeat visitors to Paris and feeling confident that we knew our way around public transportation, we even guided some older American tourists to the RER also. But alas, it was not to be… The RER towards Paris was having construction issues on the line we needed to take (RER-B), of which we were aware and knew that we would have to take a shuttle bus from CDG to Aulnay-sous-Bois and would be able to pick up the train as planned. So we headed towards the train terminal section of the airport and purchased an RER ticket to Paris (note: to use the ticketing machines, you need either coins or a credit card with a chip in it, of which we had neither, so we had to find a window where tickets were sold, adding more time and a modicum of frustration to our journey). Tickets in hand, we had lost our fellow countrymen (who seemed not to be as helpless as we thought) and made our way to the bus depot by following the general crowd. After a series of false starts, we finally found the correct bus and boarded it.
The bus trip was not a simple shuttle to a train stop; it was a good 20 minute bus ride (not doing good things for my motion sickness). Finally, at a small station in what seemed to be a pretty rural area, we were unloaded and set free. Paris train stations are notorious for not having great accessibility, and lo and behold, we did have to go down a lot of stairs (only to then climb up a lot of stairs) to get to the track where our RER-B train to Paris was arriving. Thankfully, my husband and I had our trusty High Sierra bags that are wheeled duffels that turn into backpacks, so he strapped mine onto his back and carried his down and up the stairs. Once aboard the train, I passed out until we reached our stop (Luxembourg).
Once we exited the metro station and got a whiff of Parisian air, I was rejuvenated. We took off for Hotel Jardin de l’Odeon, a very sweet boutique hotel in the 6e arrondissment, right down the street from the Theatre de l’Odeon and the Luxembourg Gardens.
We were too early to check into the hotel, so we intended to drop our bags off and get started on our Parisian adventure, round deux. A lovely member of the hotel staff checked us into our chambre (which would be ready in about 3 hours) and gave us the key to the baggage room (hello, security issue?) to put our bags away and lock up the room. We took a tiny elevator that just fit us and our bags to a tiny space to put our bags away. I attempted to freshen up and look as presentable as possible in the tiny bathroom, then we were on our way. We left the hotel and walked towards Boulevard-St. Germain (heaven!) and stopped at a bank to get money out of the ATM. Tip: The best exchange rates in Europe are via ATM (though your bank at home may charge a 3% international transaction fee), which is why we didn’t change any money at the airport. We also had some euros left over from our last trip, which we used to buy the train tickets. After procuring our euros, we headed to…Starbucks!
Now I know what you’re thinking: “You’re in Europe! Paris! Why not go to a cafe and get coffee??” I do not really like French coffee. I adore my Bodum French Press and give the French credit for inventing this life-changing method of brewing coffee (drip coffee makes me cringe) but I think French coffee tastes burnt and weak. There, I said it. So I really needed caffeine and sugar, and needed it fast (I’m sorry, we’re American) so we stopped into Starbucks. The comfort of the chain is reassuring, ordering is easy (which, for one of the first transactions in French this time around, made me happy) and it tastes good so I ordered coffee for both myself (a chocolate cappuccino) and my husband (a venti Pike Place–his regular). Coffee in hand, we continued our journey. We then looked like typical Americans, walking with our to-go Starbucks coffee cups down the Boulevard St-Germain. I am the first one to admit that I like to assimilate and certainly mean no disrespect to the culture but listen, I was tired, jet-lagged, and severely undercaffeinated. So je suis tres desolee, but I carried my coffee cup with pride.
We made our way to the rue de Buci, where an outdoor market was underway selling produce, cheese, flowers, etc. I sighed as we walked through this beautiful snapshot of Parisian life (but didn’t actually take a snapshot–shame on me) and envisioned myself as a local, as though this were my weekly market. Torn from my reverie, I finished up my Starbucks coffee and continued onward. We walked to the Boulevard-St. Michel, and came upon the beautiful fountain that is so representative of the magic that is Paris (and much of Europe, for that matter). Walking around a corner of what seems to be a “normal” street, you stumble upon a piece of history and gorgeous architecture, like this fountain, or the Eiffel Tower, or Big Ben, or the Colosseum…you catch my drift. But unlike the notorious landmarks that I just mentioned, these smaller, less iconic treasures are that much more breathtaking.
We then took the metro from St. Michel to Trocadero, where we had never been. Tip: When purchasing metro tickets, buy a carnet of 10 tickets at once since each ticket is for one-time use only and you’ll go through several in a day when traveling around the city. The tickets are absurdly small and make me feel like I’m entering a raffle when I buy them. They are little tiny scraps of paper that do not have any indication or stamp on them once they go through a machine, so you will find yourself with 15 tickets in your pocket or purse that may or may not be valid…
We did not go into any of the buildings associated with the Trocadero but rather just took in the view of the Eiffel Tower. Say what you will about it but it is a majestic structure that (I think) elegantly represents Paris.
After drinking in the view and taking a bunch of pictures, we walked across the Pont d’Iena towards the tower itself. On our last trip, it was a rainy afternoon when we arrived at the Eiffel Tower, which had sent the crowds scattering. This time, the cloudy skies did nothing to keep the tourists at bay, so it was a bit of a madhouse when we got there, but since we were not planning on going up again, we didn’t so much care. After walking under the tower, we made our way to the Champs du Mars, which is basically a park at the foot of the Eiffel Tower. We took some silly pictures there, then continued on our way.
Our next stop was the Rodin Museum (there is also one in Philadelphia, near our old apartment in the Art Museum area of the city, which is clearly not of this magnitude either in size or importance) and we passed by (but did not go into) les Invalides prior to arriving at the Rodin. Note: all museums in Paris are free on the first Sunday of the month, so fortuitously, we took advantage of this. Note that all we’ve spent so far is for coffee and our metro tickets! At this point, we were getting hungry, so we stopped for our first Parisian meal of the trip at the cafe in the musee. My husband is obsessed with Parisian jambon et fromage–he seriously cannot get enough of le sandwich. So naturally, that was his choice for his lunch. Moi, je ne mange pas du viande (je suis vegetarienne). Alors, I ordered a creamy vegetable soupe avec des croutons. C’ete parfait! It was definitely a soup-eating type of day–misty, damp weather with a deep chill. Plus, my stomach had been acting up since the bus ride from the airport so I was happy to have a comforting meal.
After leaving the Rodin Museum, we made our way back towards the hotel to get situated in our room. We stayed in room 28 (chambre vignt-huit), which was up a couple of small stairs and overlooked the courtyard. The room was a good size, particularly by European standards, and had an interesting bathroom.
The bathroom was narrow and was on two levels. There was a small room on the left for the toilet, then down two stairs to the tub/shower/sink. The weird layout had a good purpose since the bathroom floor got soaked as soon as the shower was turned on!
After resting a bit and unpacking, we were rejuvenated and ready to continue on our way to our next destination. We crossed over the Boulevard-St. Germain and seemed to just turn the corner (I think we walked along rue Danton and along quai St. Michel) et voila! Notre Dame loomed ahead of us. Gorgeous!
We crossed over a footbridge and arrived at Notre Dame. Since we had been inside last time, we walked around outside and ended up going to the Jewish Deportation Monument instead. After reading the book Sarah’s Key (by Tatiana de Rosnay), I had a deeper realization of the tragedy that took place in 1942 in Paris where the French rounded up and arrested Parisian Jewish families in what was known as the Vel d’Hiv for deportation to Auschwitz. The details of this horrific event were not taught to me in either high school or college, and reading this work of historical fiction really drove the senselessness of the loss of life home. We walked around this austere memorial and quietly mourned for the souls that were lost during this time in history.
Afterwards, we wandered over towards one of my favorite neighborhoods in all of Paris, Ile St-Louis. It is a small island in the middle of the Seine that houses delicious cafes, quaint streets, and is perfect for strolling and window-shopping (which Parisians call leche-vitrine, literally, window-licking!) while eating a glace from Berthillon, which is exactly what we did. I had noisette (hazelnut) and my husband had a delicious dark chocolate/orange flavor. Yum!
We continued to walk through this lovely (albeit expensive) isle and made our way over to the Marais (the 4e arrondissment). The Marais neighborhood is traditionally one of Paris’ “ethnic” neighborhoods, where there is a middle-Eastern and Jewish influence. Additionally, it is a more liberal, gay-friendly area as well. Walking past the Bastille, we crossed over and walked into the Place des Voges, which is a small park in the middle of this quartier. We sat for a few minutes to take it all in (and rest our feet!) and then walked over towards the Rue des Rosiers to get a snack.
I had read about L’As du Falafel (or Fallafel) on many blogs and in several books. One strong proponent of this establishment is David Lebovitz, who writes about it in his blog. I also read about it in Clotilde’s Edible Adventures in Paris, a book by lifelong Parisian and author of the blog Chocolate and Zucchini. In any case, being vegetarian and recently discovering falafel (basically meatless meatballs made with chickpeas), I put it on our list of places to check out. Being an adventurous good sport (who does not tend to like Middle Eastern food), my husband was on board so we made our way towards L’As.
Once we got there, it was a serious scene. The line was about 40 people long and 2-3 deep. A guy in a North Face jacket was directing foot-traffic and keeping things organized (sort of a falafel bouncer). We got in line behind an American college student (clearly studying abroad) and Monsieur North Face Bouncer took our order. We ordered deux falafel at 5 euros each. He scribbled our order on a piece of paper, gave us a receipt, and we paid him. Since I had read so much about this place and everyone else was doing it, we followed suit and coughed up 10 euros for our snack and took our place in line.
We waited for about 20 minutes and made our way to the front of the line. The guys making the falafel were like a really nice version of the Soup Nazi. Since our food was pre-ordered, you can customize it when you get up to the window (i.e. I requested hot sauce, Dave did not). The whole experience was a little bit Philly cheesesteak, as though we were at Pat’s or Geno’s.
Note: As above with the Starbucks, Parisians do not typically eat and walk. Food to-go is maybe becoming a little more common with the advent of Subway (!) making its way to Europe, but the great majority of meals are a fairly big to-do that last for no less than an hour and everyone sits down and peut-etre even enjoys a glass of vin. But there is an exception for falafel–it is the one food that is acceptable (even encouraged) to eat on the go. So naturally, that’s what we did.
Once we got our falafel, we began the journey to our next destination: Centre Pompidou. This museum (free–remember, first Sunday of the month!) is a modern art museum that is pretty stark on the inside and all of the outer workings are on the outside. It looks like it is constantly under renovation, what with scaffolding and pipes on the exterior, but it is the intended look of the museum. We did not have a chance to see this museum last year, so we made a point to get here this time–not because we are modern art fans but because of the view from the top. Once I wolfed down my falafel, we got inside just before 8 pm (which is the last admission–the museum closes at 9 but the last admission is one hour prior to closing). It took me a few minutes to realize that the escalator to the top was actually on the outside of the museum (see that red zig-zag in the picture? That’s the escalator. Oh.). After running around and having a petite argument, we asked a guard, who gestured towards the structure. Oops.
We took the escalator all the way to the top floor (I think it’s 6 stories up) and were rewarded by a spectacular view of evening in Paris. The top floor is enclosed in Plexiglass, but if you are a paying customer for the restaurant (we weren’t), you can have open-air access. But the view inside the glass is just as gorgeous. We got up there around 8:15-ish and were able to capture the sun setting over Paris and we watched as day transitioned to night. Amazing. The view from the top of the Eiffel Tower is great, but first off, it is too high so that everything just looks so small. Secondly, you do not get to see the Eiffel Tower (obviously) since you’re in it! The top of the Pompidou is just high enough that you can see a lot (including Sacre Coeur on Montmartre) but you’re not too high up. Plus, the Eiffel Tower is just spectacular.
While waiting for the sun to set, we took in an exhibit by Jean-Michel Othoniel that featured venetian glass orbs that looked like huge necklaces. Anything that is akin to jewelry is okay by me, so we strolled around this exhibit and enjoyed it immensely.
After leaving the Pompidou, we got back onto the metro and went back to the hotel. We got ready for dinner and tried our hand at Le Comptoir du Relais, a small bistro owned where it is near impossible to reserve a table. On Sundays and for lunch, they don’t even take reservations, so the possibility of getting a table is better. We requested a table pour deux but they were actually closing for the night (it was probably near 11 pm at that point) so we went across the street to another bistro called Les Editeurs, which we had researched beforehand as well as a fallback option. Fortunately, they were open until 2 am, so they easily, kindly accommodated us.
We settled into a cute table near the front windows (but not outside–it was a little chilly) and ordered drinks–beer for Dave and a glass of vin rouge for moi. We each had soupe de l’oignon as a starter and then Dave had a traditional steak frites with bearnaise sauce and I had a pea risotto, which came smothered in parmesean cheese (yum). It wasn’t earth-shatteringly amazing food but it was good and we left there completely stuffed. We had a molten chocolate cake for dessert (something I absolutement cannot pass up if it is on a menu…). Fortunately, the hotel was basically a stone’s throw away from the restaurant, so we rolled ourselves back to the hotel and passed out, getting ready for another day.
Stay tuned for Day 2!