By Marcia Pilgeram
At this time last year, I was shopping the streets of Paris, near the Arc de Triomphe de l’Étoile, searching for perfect Christmas oysters, from the high tides of Normandy. To complete our holiday feast, I shopped for a variety of amazing, gooey (and stinky) cheeses from my favorite fromagerie, Alléosse, also located near the Arc, and finally, cradling several fresh baguettes, I made my way back to our pension.
This past week-end, I watched the news and saw rioting on the very streets I’d strolled last year, with a toddler in tow. You’ve probably heard about these riots — the Gilets Jaunes or “the yellow vests” (working class) have been protesting rising fuel taxes. The demonstrations, which have escalated into other political issues, have virtually shut down some areas of Paris, mostly upscale and high-visibility locations such as Avenue des Champs-Élysées, the Eiffel Tower and Arc de Triomphe de l’Étoile.
The French are passionate and vocal about many issues, and they’ve experienced uprisings since the French Revolution. Typically, they take it in stride, and life mostly goes on. But the recent riots have caused many tourists to wonder: Is it safe to visit Paris? Most of the Parisians I have been in contact with say yes. The demonstrations generally occur on Saturdays, around famous landmarks. If I had a trip planned, I’d still go, though I’d exercise some extra cautions by avoiding the areas of conflict (and purchasing some trip insurance).
I’m a devoted Francophile AND a flea market enthusiast (addict), and Paris never disappoints when I am yearning to acquire even more copper pots and miniature, vintage art. The most famous flea market in Paris is the one at Porte de Clignancourt, officially called Les Puces de Saint-Ouen, but known to everyone as Les Puces (The Fleas). There are more than 100 stalls, and many of the vendors will negotiate with you. Sometimes I’ll make two or three visits to the same stall, and if the vendor sees me eyeing the same piece, they will offer to lower the price before I even ask! An added bonus, after all the hard work shopping, is lunch at Chez Louisette – it’s a Paris institution at Les Puces that you won’t want to miss.
Chez Louisette’s decor is a combination of early disco/retro Christmas/gaudy Vegas lounge. The food is typical bistro fare, served family style by efficient, no nonsense servers. The food is reasonably priced, and aside from tourists, the place is usually filled with vendors, engaged in lively conversations, giving the bistro a genuine, local flavor. A pair of overly-made-up geriatric chanteuses, accompanied by a way-too cheerful accordionist, dramatically belt out tunes. Don’t worry about getting to their “tip jar:” They will make several rounds through the restaurant to make sure you (and your money) aren’t overlooked.
Catacombes de Paris is one of my favorite attractions, and I highly recommend a guided tour (mostly to avoid the hours-long line). This underground necropolis is more than 180 miles of tunnels, lined on each side with neatly piled bones sprinkled with rows of more than five million skulls. The other bonus to a private tour is admission to areas that aren’t open to the general public.
I recommend the same entré vous for visiting other popular attractions, such as museums (Louvre or Musee d’Orsay), and Notre Dame (nearby, on Ile St Louis, check out Berthillon for the creamiest ice cream ever). The extra price for a tour is well worth the time not spent in lines. If you want to see the Eiffel Tower, make a lunch reservation at 58 Tour Eiffel Restaurant and it will include the lift price (once at the hostess stand, politely request a window table).
Many people assume Paris is only expensive gastronomies, but it’s also a city of inexpensive outdoor cafés and street food. There are corner crêperies everywhere, and one of my favorite street foods is a savory cheese crepe, warm and gooey on the inside, with bits of crisped, browned cheese forming a crust along the edges.
You’ll find authentic and delicious French onion soup, croque monsieur (baked ham and cheese sandwich with béchamel sauce) or croque madame (topped with an egg) at any corner bistro. Decanted house wine is usually tasty and inexpensive, too.
For some reason my biggest challenge usually comes when I’ve ordered coffee or water! I learned (the hard way) that if you order coffee at a bar/counter, you must drink it there and not take it to an empty table (table service costs more). And no matter how hard I try to order plain (free) tap water, just like the local Frenchman sitting next to me, I always end up with fancy (expensive) water.
When I do want to splurge, my favorite restaurant for traditional steak frites is Le Relais de Venise son Entrecôte, not far from the Champs Elysee. The steaks are cooked to order (and to perfection) and topped with a divine, savory sauce that I just cannot duplicate. But it doesn’t stop me from trying: butter (maybe browned), reduced cream, herbs, Dijon? This sublime sauce is heavenly on the steak and the Frites (fries) as well. They don’t take reservations, but it’s well worth the short wait. If you have room, top it off with the oh-so-French profiteroles.
It’s easy to take day trips from Paris, either by guided tour, or you can hop on a train (or helicopter) for the Palace of Versailles, Normandy and Le Mont-Saint-Michel or Champagne. Every location is a unique experience, much different than the streets of Paris, and I love their hub-and-spoke proximity to Paris, as I prefer to settle into one location for my overnight stays.
I like to pack my own picnics for day trips, and it’s well worth a trip to the food mecca of Paris, La Grande Épicerie, to purchase my picnic-perfect delicacies. If you’re a foodie, plan on spending several hours perusing several floors, filled with every epicurean delight your culinary imagination can conjure up. If you’re traveling with a disinterested other party (you may want to reconsider your traveling companion for future trips), you can send them over to Le Bon Marche, a huge department store connected to La Grande Épicerie. A word of caution: careful with food souvenirs. Many meats, even canned or dried sausages, dried fruits and some cheeses, cannot be imported to the U.S., so purchase (and declare) at your own risk.
It’s easy to get there from here. Aer Lingus offers flights from Seattle (change planes in Dublin), and Iceland Air also offers daily service from Seattle and Portland (that can include a few day’s layover in Reykjavik). Paris has a great transportation system, and once you land at Charles de Gaulle, the airport train station provides both international train service and local RER trains into central Paris, where you can connect to the very efficient metro system.
Riverboat cruises are yet another great way to explore Paris (and more of France) and several lines, such as Viking, AmaWaterways and Avalon offer unique itineraries that can include pre- and post-Paris stays.
Paris in the winter? Or springtime? If you’re asking me, there’s no bad time to visit this iconic city. They do call Paris the City of Lovers, though sadly, I can’t speak to that. But I have travelled there in winter and spring. I’ve gone solo, with my adult daughters, with a gaggle of grandchildren and with contemporaries, and I have loved every trip. Different as they are, I never tire of the same experiences: strolling familiar streets, eating my favorite foods and searching Paris for yet another perfect copper pot.
After many years on the supplier side of travel, along with her previous career as a chef and event plannner, Marcia is deliriously happy to use her combined passions and expertise to help others fufill their travel and adventure dreams. Find out more about her business, Capers, at www.CapersTravel.com
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