Pulling out of Charles de Gaulle, we were greeted by the awesome sight of the decommissioned Concorde displayed in pre-takeoff towards the complex’s exit. Je suis arrive!
The Hotel Des Arenes was a nicely renovated ancient affair true to Paris’ notoriously tiny living spaces with hallways much like airplane aisles and spartan single beds. It couldn’t be better located than on Place Monge with shops, cafes and restaurants lining both sides of the stretch, the Metro on each end of the block and the entrance to the Arènes de Lutèce , a Roman-era amphitheater, right next to it.
The Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris was a brisk fifteen minutes away and we soon found ourselves in front of it at Paris Point Zero Des Routes De France. It supposedly marks the exact center of the city or of France itself. Of the many customary rituals performed on site, I went with the one where I tap the brass plate with each foot to wish for a return to the city in the near future. This was with the thought of taking ThePussyKat with me so we both could perform yet another popular ritual: to kiss while standing above the plate for eternal devotion.
While the Notre Dame was certainly impressive, my attention was quickly caught by a row of cafés and shops towards its’ left. I’ve already eyed a restaurant near our hotel for dinner so we settled for some snacks. Fist-sized meringues in an assortment of real flavors — bits of real fruit and its compote stirred in – and palmiers true to etymology. The walk back revealed more picturesque little streets with picturesque little cafes and restaurants at every corner.
La Petit Pantheon Cuisine Française was a homey affair two doors down our hotel. Our host all but pulled us in with warm handshakes and familiarity. Off the bat, Gary offered free aperitifs and half off a bottle of the house red wine. The bilingual menu was easy to navigate and we made good of the 15 Euro set meal deal by ordering different sets to try and taste most of the options.
Giving in on his insistence on their homemade Paté was something not to regret with its’ wholesome meaty flavors. It can’t get any more French than the Soupe à L’oignon. I never knew it wasn’t traditional to have a melty processed cheese single or puff pastry on top of Onion Soup until then. Meat yielded to the fork like butter to a hot knife in the Boeuf Bourguignon with deep flavors that can only be had with a long, slow stewing. Coq Au Vin came across with a very home-cooked appearance far from fancy French expectations and tasted much like adobo in wine. For dessert there was the classic Chocolate Mousse and Camembert which, as if that did not have enough flavor already, was served with butter. Can it get any more indulgent than this?
We got up early the next day to visit the Eiffel Tower and tour the immediate area. After all, one just has to have day and nighttime shots of it. Starting off from our exit at Trocadero, we slowly photowalked our way to the site. This monsieur grabbed a Croque Monsieur and coffee from a sidewalk food kiosk along the way and enjoyed an instant picnic overlooking the Siene. The petulant weather became cooperative as we neared the tower to allow our money shots. Impressive in standard side- view, the Eiffel is even more impressive up close and from underneath like an architect/engineer/designer’s wet dream. We’ve pre-booked evening tickets for entry up the tower and were to return that same night.
We regrouped at the hotel to checkout and move to the Northwest, modern quarter for the remaining days. Our exit on Rue Mongue emptied into a food market which we swept through for lunch finds before our scheduled departure. We picked up random items including cheeses and Saucisse séche — freshly-made, naturally-cured sausage sold by weight. In transit, I French-“quiched” the biggest single-serve slice I’ve ever had that had with it the understanding of why the people of the Lorraine region love their bacon like life.
We rolled into the residential area of La Defense to Melon District, a very new and modern budget hotel way above its humble label and pricing. A reservation mishap had me gladly accepting a double room for myself instead of sharing a quad. We were keen on not wasting any daylight and immediately set out to see more sights before our scheduled entry up the Eiffel at nine.
The Basilique du Sacré-Cœur de Montmarte easily became one of my favorite landmarks in Paris. It looks like I wasn’t the only one as the sloped lawn and steps leading up to it were filled with a motley crew of interesting characters both local and tourist. I chanced upon this Tibetan/Mongolian tourist — my best guess by the embroidered design on her dress — who graciously allowed me to take a photo.
“What’s French for Pug?”, I asked the owner of Teresa, a two-year old rescue pug I met at Rue du Chevalier de la Barre shop street. “Le pug.”, she replied. That set a more jovial mood for the group as we pushed further into the village.
One of the oldest restaurants on Place du Tertre, La Mère Catherine, supposedly birthed the “bistro” in 1814 after a group of Russian soldiers demanded for their drinks to be brought to their table quickly, in Russian, bystro. I was served duck breast medium rare at just right before this trip so this French parallel leaped from the menu. Succulent pieces of duck breast with an almost porcine layer of fat all done beautifully medium to point of the exotic sense of what’s quite unusual for me. Spicy in Europe is also far from its general concept in Asia and just simply meant it had many types of spices with this Magret De Canard Aux Épices leaning towards the classic l’orange.
Dinner was a bit too enjoyable and we found ourselves rushing to make our scheduled Eiffel Tower tour meetup. The brisk walk from the Metro exit had us passing by numerous ambient vendors and cups-and-balls tricksters on the sidewalk of Quai Branly. Of the many, there was an eye-catching display of White Sausages on Stir-fried Slaw. When did street food start looking this good?
The large lift slowly moved up the tower’s Sommet as dusk faded into bright moonlight to reveal the cityscape in a bluish hue. Paris is not called the City of Lights for nothing with views of the city I swear would move one to tears. It did me. The thrills were capped with the spill of going out the wrong exit back at La Defense, taking us over an hour and three blocks off course to the hotel. We all wordlessly retired knowing a bigger day was ahead with the Louvre on the docket.
I’d agree that the glass pyramid of the Louvre is quite the stark juxtaposition of the modernist against the richly decorative classical façade but, at the same time, I couldn’t make an argument against its arresting panorama. Rooms upon rooms of art we couldn’t have covered in a day so we made a beeline for the hits. There was the Mona Lisa with her a smile more cat-ate-the-canary — the sight slightly underwhelming for a bucketlist item but ticked off nonetheless. A flight of marble steps triumphantly led up to the Winged Victory. Venus De Milo fell short only of limbs. The Egyptian section revealed the very interesting Le Menu De Tepemânkh, the Menu of the Dead, a roughly 1x1m stone relief of an Egyptian temple menu.
That suggestion of meals segued into brunch at one of the in-house cafes. Except for the literal ham skirt, I had a no-frills Jambon et Fromage Baguette straight up with Gruyere. I took the chance at a pun to declare my “Louvre” for apple pie and paired my Tarte Aux Pommes with a Café Americano. We covered as much as our feet could for the rest of the afternoon then hopped on the L’open Bus Tour to take a roundabout of the city in seated comfort.
The elevated view from the open second deck of the bus gave us yet another perspective of the city. Angles and details of sights not seen from the ground level revealed themselves as we passed through much of what we covered in the Old Quarter on foot. Moving on to Champs-Elyseés, we got off at the far end, triumphantly taking a dead-on frontal of the Arc de Triomphe at the crossing.
What was a leisurely long walk back to mainstreet Champs worked up quite the appetite that I didn’t quite ruin with a Framboise-Vanille Glace, that’s Raspberry-Vanilla Ice Cream, from Jeff de Bruges. Buyer’s remorse is when you get a regular and like it so much you wished you pushed an extra Euro for the next cone thrice its size. I swore I’d eat only local while travelling but I succumbed to the convenience of fastfood. Let’s make the exception that this is a French Big Mac and Really French Fries, shall we?
Our last day in Paris was reserved for the Versailles. A dedicated train with double-decker cabs decorated in the theme plied the route to and from Place d’Armes. It seemed like the Chateau had a town built around and specifically for it. The line for tickets snaked around the block and we jumped on the VIP guided tour option for twice the regular price. The Chateau itself was still a considerable walk from the ticket center and the grand sight slowly zoomed into view like an exposition shot in a period movie. The gate to the inner courtyard was in gold as were the decorative motifs on the buildings. Gold was the recurring, if not the theme of the entire complex. We learned that Louis XIV loved ballet and, judging from his decor, he would have loved Spandau. This is perhaps proof that the word ostentatious has a French root. The tour was peppered with enough historical tidbits of gossip to keep it interesting beyond the up-next-is’s and to-your-left-or-right-are’s. The highlight was the hall of mirrors with 10,000 candles that they lit manually for parties in its heydays way before Edison was mainstream.
Our tickets included passes to the gardens but intermittent downpours kept us indoors, keeping the pain of the wait at bay with Pain Au Chocolat and coffee. We braved the cold when the skies trickled to a drizzle. Tired and damp but quite fulfilled, we boarded the train back to central Paris nursing the beginnings of a cold.
We broke fast the next day with assorted cold cuts and cheeses at the Melon Café breakfast buffet. I opted for French Vanilla from the automated coffee dispenser like that would really complete the French experience. There was much we’ve seen but even more we have yet to.
To pull the French leave was not possible with the PA announcing boarding for our flight back home. “Au revoir”, as most of us would know to mean goodbye, actually means “until we see each other again”. So be it, Paris. So be it.