Paris Trip Report, Part I of III

I wrote this up some time ago but am only now getting my act together to post it. I really love traveling, in all its phases: planning, actuality, and reflection. And part of my routine each day is to spend some time in the morning, writing up notes (old-school pen-and-paper style!) about the previous day’s activities, which I can later type up. I do this partly for myself and my traveling companions, so that we have details recorded for future reference and enjoyment, and partly for other travelers who may find them helpful in planning their own trips. So hopefully folks out there will find these (in some cases obsessive) details useful and/or entertaining.

The entire report is quite long so I am splitting it into three parts, and putting it behind a cut.

I will include a few pictures here, but I also have an entire album here.

Preparation and Planning Details:

This was my second trip to Paris. My first was a seven day visit back in 2006, during which time my husband Bob and I stayed in an apartment in the 1st arrondisement, along with my mom, dad, and younger brother. This time it was to be a TEN day trip, with just my mom and Bob.

At first we considered splitting our time between Paris and another location, but ultimately decided to embrace slow travel and commit entirely to Paris (plus a few day trips). I have no regrets at all about that decision! I was a tiny bit hesitant about returning to somewhere I’d already been when there are so many other places I want to visit, but ultimately it made for a really wonderful trip. This time I didn’t feel the same slight panic I have gotten on prior trips, worrying that I am “missing” something. I think that this was partly because I’d been to Paris before, and so I had already seen many of the “must-sees.” This time I felt as if I was more in control of my itinerary, revisiting favorites, getting to check out some things I’d missed last time, and generally just enjoying BEING in the beautiful city and absorbing as much as I could!

I knew from my previous visit that my favorite part of the city is the area around Luxembourg Gardens, so this time we stayed in a small apartment in the 6th arrondisement. I arranged this via VRBO and it was exactly as promised. I think if I were doing it all over again, I would have paid more to get a larger, quieter apartment (with two actual bedrooms, rather than a bedroom and a loft) but the location was perfect for our needs, convenient to several metro lines, bus lines, bakeries, and a supermarket, as well as being just a short walk from my beloved Luxembourg Gardens. We paid €1300 for our ten-night stay.

After tracking ticket prices for several months on Kayak, I ultimately got us tickets through AirFrance, nonstop from Boston Logan to CDG. We would be departing Monday September 23 in the evening, arriving Tuesday September 24 in the morning.

We pre-booked tickets for several tours as well:

We purchased “skip-the-line” tickets for the Catacombs, and were very glad we did both because the lines were very, very long, and because we truly enjoyed our guide’s presentation of the information. We did this via MyParisianTour/Dark Rome.

We purchased tickets for a ride up the Saint Martin canal (a bit of a gamble, weather-wise, but we were glad to have it settled in advance) via Canauxrama. We were a bit worried about doing this in advance, in case of bad weather, but were ultimately very glad we did as it was a relief to have it all handled in advance. And we did get good weather!

Lastly, we purchased tickets in advance for the private guided tour of Versailles that included the King’s private apartments and the Opera House. This was also something we were very happy to have done in advance, as they do sell out, and are only available on certain days. This tour also allowed us to access the main sections of the chateau (Hall of Mirrors) and did not cost much more than the standard entry fee, so we felt it was a good deal considering that it allowed us to see some less crowded areas, including the magnificent Opera House.

Aside from that, my preparations were mostly in the form of lots of lists of pâtisseries, gardens, markets, and bus routes (we had determined that buses would be more convenient than the metro as they involve fewer stairs, which bother my mom’s knees).

Our general plan was to take things easy and let everyone go at his or her own pace. Bob likes to sleep in, while I like to be out-and-about early and walk a lot, so in general I took the mornings for my own explorations, usually on foot. This was good as it helped me work off my extra energy!

In terms of food, we ate breakfast and dinner in our apartment most days, though breakfast often included croissants or pastries I brought back from a morning ramble. We got groceries from the corner market right down the street, and from the larger Franprix a few blocks further. We all appreciate good food, but our tastes are more for ethnic and simple comfort foods, rather than upscale dining. So when we did eat “out” it was generally lunch in cafes or street food.

A note on language/culture: Neither my mother nor I speak French. Bob speaks a bit, having lived in Paris as a boy for several years. I did my best to learn the simple polite phrases, important food terms, etc. Overall we had no problems with language as most everyone generously switched to English after the initial exchange of pleasantries. On the whole, the people we encountered were quite helpful and good-natured.

Day 1, Tuesday 24 September: Planes, Trains, and Bateaux Mouches

We arrived early Tuesday morning after a smooth but tiring overnight flight. I had researched how to take the RER train into Paris, and this was easy enough to do. The train was very crowded though! We were glad we had packed light!

We got off at the Luxembourg station, and walked through the gardens to our apartment. I had texted the apartment owner (I have a Mobal phone I use for oversees), and she met us on the street outside 3 Rue d’Asses. It was rather a long walk with suitcases (even small, rolling ones) but it was also kind of nice to stretch our legs, and to see the beautiful gardens right away! Lida welcomed us to the apartment graciously, showing us everything we needed to know, then left us to settle in (aka fall into bed instantly).

Four hours later we managed to get ourselves up and out. We picked up pastries from nearby Pâtisserie Secco, then took them over to Luxembourg Gardens and ate them on a bench, supplemented with (expensive!) drinks from the garden cafe. It was lovely to sit and watch everyone go past. The sunny warm weather had clearly drawn many people to the park, including large packs of men in matching shorts (a sports team?) running laps with great energy.

We continued on, stopping at the Medici fountain (my favorite spot in the garden), then heading on to the Place Saint-Michel area. I visited Shakespeare & Co, picking up a souvenir and enjoying the cool, twisty maze of books, and the tiny little alcove filled with love letters to books and bookshops.

We then crossed over to the Île de la Cité, to walk past Notre Dame and rest in the gardens (which had free Wi-Fi). At this point we were all still quite zonked out from the travel, and just sort of floating along. Which is probably how I was able to convince Mom and Bob to walk so much– we kind of overdid it!

We crossed to Île Saint-Louis for Berthillion ice cream from the small stand beside the bridge. Salted caramel for all! It was absolutely delicious! We enjoyed our scoops while watching the street performers, including an accordion player, and a young man juggling glass balls like David Bowie’s goblin king Jareth, in the movie Labyrinth.

Fortified with ice cream, we headed to the Pont Neuf to catch one of the boat tours to see more of the city while resting our tired feet. We’d done this on our last visit, and it was just as lovely the second time! It’s one of my favorite ways to be (re)introduced to the city, especially that first glimpse of the Eiffel Tower as you loop along the Seine river! It was still quite sunny, and the warm gold stones and vivid green trees and clear blue sky conspired to create a beauty that (at least to our sleep-deprived minds) was fairly overwhelming.

After our boat trip, we ambled home via Rue de Buci, stopping for takeaway roast chicken, green beans and potatoes at Tratieur JSFP for dinner, and a bunch of flowers to decorate our home-away-from-home. We also got some staples for the apartment at the Monoprix.

We enjoyed our quiet dinner at home, then all retired early, to rest our sore feet and prepare for another day.

Day 2, Wednesday 25 September: Notre-Dame and Sainte-Chapelle

While Bob slept in, Mom and I headed out on a mission to visit the famed Poilâne bakery, which happened to be almost just around the corner from our apartment. We purchased a half-loaf of the large round bread, the top beautifully carved with the curling “P” insignia of the bakery. The staff were lovely, getting us a fresh loaf and slicing it for us. I also bought two apple pastries, and a croissant for Bob (which he later said was his favorite of the trip). We escaped with our delectable bounty, in spite of an embarrassing misadventure in which I tried to take another gentleman’s pastry. (He was very kind about it!)

Back home we devoured the crisp, buttery pastries and some of the chewy, slightly sour bread, with good butter and peach jam from the corner market. Delicious!

Still feeling antsy, I went out solo, to scout out the bus stop where we planned to catch a bus to the Île de la Cité later, and to purchase a carnet of tickets at the nearest metro station. I also wandered around a bit, just admiring the architecture along the Rue de Dragon, dodging clouds of smoke as I watched students crowding into the local boulangerie for a snack.

Back home, it was time to prepare for our first bus trip. This ended up being very easy. At first we weren’t sure how to use our tickets (the carnet from the metro is valid on both metro and bus lines) but there was someone working for the bus service (checking passes) who showed us where to stick it into the reader at the front of the bus. We made sure to keep the tickets, in case we needed to show them to anyone later, or to transfer to another bus (they are valid for a certain time span).

We got off near Saint-Michel again, where we paused to admire the art deco metro entrance, then plunged into the warren of touristy streets in search of something quick for lunch. Mom and I got falafel from Maoz, which was delicious and quite fresh and light tasting for street food — and I loved how you could put your own toppings (vegetables, sauces, pickles, peppers) on from the salad bar type setup. I enjoyed the energy and color of this area, though some streets were a bit overwhelming with the food vendors shouting at you to come in to their shops.

We ate our food in the green and relatively quiet Square René-Viviani, while paying a visit to the oldest living inhabitant of Paris, the acacia tree supposedly planted 400 years ago by its namesake Jean Robin. The square also had lovely views of Notre-Dame, just across the river.

We crossed over, heading to Sainte-Chapelle. It was around 2PM, and the lines were not bad. We probably waited about 10 minutes in the security line, then perhaps 5 minutes for tickets. Though when we left an hour later the ticket line had gotten huuuuge, so who knows how to judge these things?

I had been to Sainte-Chapelle on our last Paris trip, but I wanted to return as it was one of the highlights of that trip. It was just as stunning the second time, even packed with crowds and with half of the stained glass (fortunately the half facing away from the sun) under scaffolding for restoration. I plugged in my headphones (playing some Anonymous 4 for atmosphere) and found an unobtrusive spot where I could just study those beautiful bright windows with the afternoon sun streaming in.

From Paris 2013

Someday maybe I will manage to return in the dead of winter when it might be less crowded, but for now I am happy with my experience! [Note, if you are visiting for the first time, you may be wondering where all this beautiful stained glass is when you first enter. You start off in the lower chapel (near the souvenir shop!) and have to go upstairs to reach the upper chapel.]

We departed after we’d had our fill of both stained glass and our fellow tourists, to seek the balm of more Berthillion ice cream on the corner down the street. We were served by an adorable young girl (maybe 8 years old?) who was “helping” her grandmother. She kept trying to give us large scoops rather than the petit cones we had ordered, in spite of grandma’s attempts to reign in her generosity.

Fortified, we headed on to Notre-Dame, where we waited in line for about 5 minutes to gain entry. Inside was overwhelming (in a good way). Once again I used my headphones to cover the tourist chatter with celestial music more in keeping with the environment. I visited the statue of Joan of Arc, where I made an offering and lit one of the small tea lights. When my mom joined me a few minutes later, she did the same, and lit her candle from the flame of mine, without my having told her which it was (there were dozens). A magical moment!

Bob and I posed at the “zero” point outside the cathedral:

After this, we returned to Saint-Michel, planning to catch a ride back to “our neighborhood.” We also took a slight detour for photos at the Rue du Chat-qui-Pêche, supposedly the narrowest street in Paris.

The bus was easy-peasy, once we found the correct bus stop (this was the most challenging part of learning the bus lines for me — eventually I found a really detailed map I could download to my tablet that shows exactly where the stops are for every line). We got off nearby a local Mariage-Freres tea shop, where we stopped to buy some souvenirs. The shopkeeper was very, very kind and helpful, allowing us to sniff various teas while making our selection. We also picked up some delicious rooibos chai flavored white chocolate that I still dream about, sadly unavailable in the states!

Back home, we had a dinner of leftovers, supplemented with some mushroom ravioli and tomato sauce from the market. By then we were very wiped out, and spent the evening in our apartment, reading and chatting.

Day 3 Thursday, 26 September: Saint-Martin Canal

I started the morning with a small cup of hazelnut (noisette) yogurt that was SO delicious I later went back to the store for two more. But a girl cannot breakfast on yogurt alone, so I set out for another of the pâtisseries on my “must-try” list: Gérard Mulot. The shop was near enough to make a nice morning walk. On the return trip, clutching my bag of croissant, pain au chocolat, and pistachio macaron, I once more visited the Luxembourg gardens, enjoying the relative solitude of early morning, and the chance to study all the statues of the queens who guard the center of the gardens.

Back home, Mom and I had a breakfast of eggs from the corner market, Poilâne toast, blood orange juice, and (of course) pastries. Mom is the only one of us who likes coffee, so we had not made arrangements to brew any in the apartment. Instead, she got coffee from Secco, down the street — either drunk in the shop or taken to go.

Our street:

I went out again for another ramble after this second breakfast, exploring the area up toward the Pont des Arts, where I saw a brave fellow walking five dogs, all at once. The neighborhoods were lovely to just wander through, window-shopping and people-watching.

Once everyone else was up and ready, we set out on Bus 87, to the Bastille, where we had our lunch at La Cavetière, a bistro near the canal. All our food was delicious, and the owners were characters: an older man and woman who seemed to constantly be involved in a good-natured argument. There seemed to be a number of regulars. I was especially charmed by an older gentleman who ordered a cheese course, which the owner served with great solicitude, carving it off the large wheel and inquiring if the quantity was sufficient. We shared a raw mushroom salad, roasted chicken with a salad and fries, and a dish of stewed chicken with vegetables in a light broth. No time for dessert, though, as we were due to board our boat for a trip up the Saint-Martin canal.

We enjoyed this trip very much! We sat in the front of the boat, where we could observe the excitement of the foam and spray as the locks were opened to lift us up, step-by-step. The first 20 minutes or so were spent going through the tunnel, lit occasionally by overhead skylights and an art installation of lights. There was occasional commentary (in English and French) throughout, as well as music in between (something somber and atmospheric in the tunnel, cheerful stuff outside in the sun!).

It was a long and peaceful ride, but never boring as we had plenty to see, in the stretches of green park along the banks of the canal where people were sitting, exercising, playing, eating. We were amused when one of the lock attendants came on board while the water level was slowly rising, to get a cup of coffee from the boat’s bar.

Eventually we reached the Parc de Villette and the end of the trip. We got a nice glimpse of the great silvery Geode, and the grounds of the park, but we were too tired by that point to explore further. So we headed straight for the metro, which we took back to Saint Sulpice. On our walk home we got a few things from Franprix to supplement our leftovers, and had a simple dinner back at home. I had my Gérard Mulot pistachio macaron, which was my favorite of the trip in spite of the violently green color. We had a peaceful evening in our apartment reading and going to sleep early, in preparation for the next day’s more challenging adventure: navigating Gare Montparnasse and taking the train to Chartres!

To be continued soon!


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