It’s pretty much universal. February is not a good time to be in Paris. The weather sucks, the food markets for the most part are downsized if open at all, and other shopping pretty much consists of leftover merchandise unsold from the winter holiday season. Having said that, my daughter Lara and I had a fabulous time. We were able to book a small suite of rooms at a really nice three-star hotel in the Latin Quarter on the Left Bank at a significantly reduced price, we visited the Eiffel Tower with no advance tickets and a very short wait in line, we were able book reservations with one day’s notice at restaurants that are usually 3 – 4 weeks out, and every boutique was having a sale. The weather? Not so bad. We couldn’t see our breath outdoors, half the days were sunny and we brought good umbrellas for the rest.
We really didn’t want to plan too much. Our goal was basically to take it easy, do the most key tourist things (this was Lara’s first visit to Paris) and pretty much wu wei it or go with the flow. We did do two things before we arrived aside from making a hotel reservation. We purchased round-trip Rail Europe tickets to Brussels, thereby saving a bundle, and we arranged for a guided tour of the Marais.
We stayed at the Hôtel Résidence Henri IV in a one-bedroom suite with a kitchenette. The living room was turned into a bedroom for my daughter. We paid roughly $315 a night including tax and wifi for the suite. Breakfast was not included. The hotel is small, comfortable with good beds, nicely appointed with antiques and repros, and the location couldn’t have been better. Above all, the staff is fantastic. They are English-speaking for the most part and are more than happy to make whatever reservations you want. Through them we arranged to have a car pick us up at Charles De Gaulle airport and at the end of our stay they arranged for a car to take us to the Gare du Nord for our train to Brussels. It is possible to take a cheaper shuttle from Charles De Gaulle to the hotel, but I’ve reached the point in my life where I don’t want to hassle with luggage any more than I have to and I like being met when I land in a foreign country even though my French is pretty good.
For the first day and a half we basically explored our neighborhood and the Île de la Cité where Notre Dame is located, bought 5-day Metro passes and went up the Eiffel Tower. We should have purchased the Metro passes through Rail Europe when we bought the train tickets to Brussels and we would have saved 50% ($70US vs. $35US). We did discover it was easier to walk across the Seine to a metro station when we wanted to go to someplace on the other side of the river because there seem to be only three trains that cross under the Seine and that can make for some complicated line changes.
There has been an interesting development on one of the bridges since my last trip to Paris roughly 10 years ago. The Pont de l’Archevêché right near Notre Dame is covered with padlocks (as are two other Parisian bridges located elsewhere). Lovers affix a padlock to the bridge and throw the key into the Seine to assure themselves that their love will last forever. Apparently, this tradition started before World War II in Serbia when a schoolteacher and a soldier fell in love and promised to marry when he returned from the war. He went off to war in Greece, met another woman and the schoolteacher died of a broken heart. Young Serbian women started to write their names and their lovers’ on padlocks and affixing them to the bridge where the teacher and the soldier used to meet. The tradition has been picked up by lovers in cities all over the world like Toronto, Florence, Dublin, Seoul and now Paris, thus giving the souvenir vendors another trinket to sell.
Cookware, Cassoulet and the Marais
Lara and I both love to cook as well as eat. So like most cooks we love quality kitchen tools. Not far from the Louvre while we were walking down the Champs-Elysées, we stopped at E. Dehillerin (18-20, rue Coquillière). There is probably not any kitchen utensil of good quality that you cannot buy there. The copperware alone is worth the visit. Dehillerin has been in business for almost 100 years and the shop looks like it – crowded with an old-fashioned check out routine that doesn’t appear to have been computerized, but wonderful and a bit intimidating if you’re not French, maybe even if you are French. I’ve read comments from folks on-line who think Dehillerin is expensive. I really don’t think it is because most of what they sell is made in France by well-paid union workers and is top-of-the-line. If you pay for your purchases by credit card, ask them to give you the forms for the VAT refund when you leave France. It’s up to 20% and you’re entitled to roughly 16% back. I think you can still get a refund if you pay cash, but it’s a lot more cumbersome.
A stone’s throw from Dehillerin is Comptoir de la Gastronomie (34, rue Montmartre, Tel 01-42-33-31-32). No one should visit France without eating cassoulet, a rich stew generally consisting of pork sausage, duck confit, ham, and haricot beans. Comptoir de la Gastronomie makes one of the best. The restaurant is attached to a deli that specializes in foie gras, confits, truffles, caviar, fine French wine and spirits and more. We bought canned goose foie gras and cassoulet. The restaurant is very small and a reservation is a must. Your table is reserved for two hours and they will hold it for you if you are late, but you won’t be able to extend your time because they will likely have other reservations. I started with green lentils, capers and frog legs on top of a warm vinegary salad, followed by the cassoulet, and finished with a molten chocolate cake. A liver lover, Lara had the house goose foie gras as her starter and said it was velvety and out-of- this-world. I wasn’t able to finish all my cassoulet and would have loved to have taken it back to the hotel where we had a microwave, but I never once during our stay in Paris and later in Belgium saw anyone take a doggie bag with them, so I didn’t ask for one.
For our second full day in Paris we had arranged a private walking tour of the Marais through Paris Muse Walking Tours. It was a bit pricey at 90 Euros each (roughly $118US) but worth it. Our guide was an American architect named Patrick who was very knowledgeable not only about the evolving architecture of the Marais but about the history of the Marais and Paris. The tour was supposed to last 2-1/2 hours but we were with him for 3 hours. The Marais (“swamp” in French) is on the Right Bank of the Seine just north of Île St-Louis, actually within walking distance of our hotel on the Left Bank. It was swampland until the 13th century when it was drained and converted into farmland. As Paris and the stench of its urban residential neighborhoods grew, the king and the aristocracy moved to the Marais. In the 17th and 18th centuries the aristocracy left the Marais to be replaced by ordinary Parisians, the Jewish community in particular. Now it’s become a very trendy area with expensive boutiques and restaurants existing beside Jewish bookstores and kosher grocery stores. There are small squares where antique dealers are concentrated. Fridays and Saturdays are the best days to visit the antique dealers. We were there on Tuesday and Wednesday and many of the places were closed.
Some interesting factoids emerged from Patrick’s chat. Gargoyles mean gargling gutters from the French se gargariser to gargle. Many of the old residences have hats incorporated into the carved insignia on their exteriors. Each artisan guild had its own hat and a guild member would have his hat carved into the exterior of his home indicating what he did for a living. Some folks must have belonged to more than one guild because there emerged the expression “wearing many hats” for a person who was involved in several different enterprises. “Raining cats and dogs” comes from the fact that the Marais is subject to flooding and the bodies of drowned cats and dogs would often float down the Seine after a heavy rain.
Small Steamed Dishes and the Mona Lisa
For lunch one day with the help of the desk clerk at our hotel we snagged a reservation at yam’Tcha, a very highly regarded, 3-year old Chinese-French fusion restaurant mentioned in the Michelin guide but with no stars yet. yam’Tcha describes the experience it aims to give its clientele as “the pleasure of tasting small steamed dishes while drinking tea.” And wine, I might add. The lunch tasting menu consists of 6 small courses accompanied by tea, wine or both – 135 Euros ($175US) for tea alternating with wine with each course and 145 Euros ($189US) for wine throughout. The chef/owner is Adeline Grattard who studied cooking in Hong Kong and is married to the tea master. I’m not a tea drinker myself but Lara assured me the teas were as masterful accompaniments to the courses as the wines.
The starter was scallop ceviche with citrus “caviar.” Citrus “caviar” is the interior pulp that is squeezed out of finger limes, very small finger-shaped citrus that were found growing wild in Australia and are now cultivated there and in the United States. Astounding! That was followed by foie gras and mushrooms topped with a clam foam. The fish entrée was pollack and spinach and then a potato purée with an oyster. The fish in Paris is great. We even had lobster with the big claws like you find in New England but much more expensive. Most of the seafood seems to come from Brittany. I must put Brittany on my to-visit list. The meat course was capon with garlic and finely chopped ginger under the skin. There were steamed Chinese dumplings with some of the courses, but I forget which ones.
Quite unrelated to the food but indicative of the prevailing good taste and attention to detail and fine design of Chef Grattard is the bathroom. The sink is a hollowed out stone. Very feng shui. With one of the courses we were brought exquisite steak knives of minimalist design, perfectly balanced and French-made. The server was gracious enough to give us the name of the shop where we could buy them.
We finished our afternoon with a visit to the Louvre to see Leonardo’s Mona Lisa. I have to say I was unprepared for my reaction to her. Because it was February, the middle of the week and beautiful outside we were able to enter her gallery with no problem. I managed to muscle my way through a crowd of young Japanese tourists with cameras to stand in front of her for several minutes. Even though the curators have been forced to put her under glass, she still projects a powerful presence – Europe at the height of the Renaissance, throwing off the shackles and superstitions of the Middle Ages, a real woman, not an idealized madonna. I was awestruck. There is no other way to describe my feeling.
Cutlery, Montmartre and the Panthéon
The next day was quite rainy so we decided to return to the Louvre. On our way we stopped at Courty et Fils (44, rue des Petits-Champs) the cutlery shop to buy the steak knives we had discovered at yam’Tcha. What a gem of a shop! It was founded in 1875 and is one of the oldest shops in Paris. Its specialty is hand-made French knives of all types but it also imports the finest Japanese and Finnish knives. We didn’t really look at their kitchen knives but we will when we return. Our steak knives are made by Perceval of Thiers, France. We paid 296 Euros ($385US) per set of 6 knives with ebony colored handles. The VAT is included in that price. We had the salesperson fill out the appropriate forms for our refunds and he included a stamped, self-addressed envelope for us to mail the forms back to him when we had them stamped for the refund at the airport right before we left. Our refunds would appear as credits on the cards we used to pay for the knives.
I especially recommend Courty et Fils if you are a hunter. With the exception of a specialty shop in Maine, I have never seen such an extensive collection of fine hunting knives, both new and antique. The store also has a wide selection of scissors of all kinds and high-end shaving accessories.
On our last full day in Paris, we walked around hilly Montmartre which is very touristy but fun. A word of warning. If you take the Metro like we did to the Place des Abesses to begin your stroll, be prepared for a long climb up the many stairs out of the station. In the 18th century what is the now the Metro station was a deep gypsum mine which explains why it is so far below ground. However, there is an elevator. The station entrance itself with its curved pale green metalwork and glass canopy is a fine example of the work of Hector Guimard, a famed Art Nouveau architect. At one time most of the Metro stations had Guimard entrances or édicules. There are still many scattered throughout the city, but the one at the Place des Abesses is iconic.
We ended our afternoon at the Panthéon. It was built as a basilica in the last half of the 18th century by Louis XV and is supposed to be a superb example of 18th Century Neoclassicism, but that was not a particularly good time to be building basilicas. It was finished in 1790, just in time for the French Revolution. Two years later most of its windows were bricked up and the building was turned into a secular mausoleum. There were two attempts to turn it back into a Catholic basilica, but finally the 1885 burial of Victor Hugo permanently converted it into a mausoleum.
I think it’s fair to say that the building reflects the emergence of scientific rationalism and secularism in France along with the political ideals of the 1789 revolution. Some of the honored dead buried there are the intellectual giants of the Enlightenment in the 18th century like Voltaire and Rousseau. The French physicist Leon Foucault performed his famous experiment to show the effect of the earth’s rotation when he installed his famous pendulum from the roof of the Panthéon in 1851. A duplicate is now suspended there. Both Lara and I were moved to see the tomb of another physicist, Marie Curie, the second woman (I think there are only two!) buried at the Panthéon.
In 2007 President Jacques Chirac unveiled a plaque to the more than 3500 French citizens who are recognized as the Righteous among Nations by the Holocaust Remembrance Authority in Jerusalem. These brave souls helped hide French Jews during the Nazi occupation. Three-quarters of France’s Jewish population survived thanks to them.
I paid tribute to Toussaint Louverture who is also honored by a plaque. He was imprisoned by Napoleon Bonaparte and died of exposure at Fort-de-Joux in the French Alps and his body was unceremoniously buried there in an unmarked grave. Across from Toussaint is a plaque dedicated to Louis Delgrès, another military hero who fought against slavery in Guadeloupe and whose body was never found.