First of all, you need a place to stay. Paris has 20 “arrondissements” (suburbs) that basically spiral out from the Musée de Louvre and cover all of central Paris in a giant helix. Central Paris being defined as the area enclosed by the periphèrique, which is the ring road that encircles the majority of the city. My recommendation is Hotel Therèse, on 5–7 rue Therèse, which is very quaint and has small but clean rooms and decent bathrooms It also has an elevator (not a given in a boutique hotel), which is useful when your room is on the 3rd floor. From this hotel, the major sites of Paris are a short walk or 7-euro uber ride away.
Food in France was our biggest disappointment, and it being that was our biggest surprise, as we were expecting fresh crispy baguettes, cheese plates oozing with honey and jellies, and sophisticated meat dishes. Our first stop at Bistro Vivienne, in the Vivienne Arcades round the corner from the hotel, even won a Bronze Medal and was named one of the 100 top Bistros in Paris. To give it credit, my son’s fish dish was excellent. Noah had erroneously thought “fillet of Saint-Pierre” meant some kind of steak, but the white fish was juicy and sweet, and he enjoyed the risotto beneath. My cheese dish was alas quite literally a dish with cheese, and not very exciting ones — plus a twig with five squishy black grapes on it. Never try and be a vegetarian in France, my friends.
On your first night out, even if it is an absolutely freezing 30-degree Fahrenheit day in February, don’t try and go to the Catacombs two hours before closing as you will find the line is too long and just as you arrive, you are told by the officious guard that you (and fifty folks who have been waiting an hour already, worse for them) won’t get in. Or you could just go there, enjoy the walk and take an uber back. We walked from the bistro through Place des Victoires, with its central bronze statue of the Sun-King Louis XIV on a rearing horse; past the Louvre with its modern 1989 pyramids by the super-famous architect I.M. Pei outside its courtyard of the 18th-19th century; along the flooded banks of the Seine with the old booksellers selling even older books and records (who is buying this stuff in 2017?) and across the bridge to Ile de la Cité to the Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris (long line to get in even at 6pm on this afore-mentioned totally-freezing February day); so we kept going down rue Saint-Jacques, past the 1780 Panthéon (important dead French inside) and the beautiful 1850 exterior of the Musée du Service de Santé des Armée; and finally arriving at the Square Claude-Nicolas-Ledoux to be sadly turned away from the Catacombs entrance.
However, as we ubered back to our hotel, we saw a hideous large neon-lit Ferris wheel right in front of the Louvre gardens on Place de la Concorde. “Let’s get out and do it!” we shrieked in delight, and so we did. The Grande Roue de Paris is 60-metres tall and easily transportable, which is a good thing as the French hate it and are aggressively campaigning for it to be transported out of the city. I agree with them. It will be gone in May 2018. However it was there and so were we, so up we went. For 12-euros each, we got five spins round in a small semi-open carriage that seats about 4 comfortably, or 6 with laps. By circumnavigation number four, it had got pretty boring as Paris is surprisingly dark at night, unlike London where even the lights of Regents Street and Piccadilly can be seen from the Flying Eye. I guess the French are simply constantly prepared for another German invasion and since it worked so well to create fake street signs and directions in 1940, this time they are just going for total darkness so no one can find the city. Let’s hope the Gerries don’t have GPS. On the other hand, the one thing that was brilliantly lit up was the Eiffel Tower so perhaps I am wrong on French military strategy.
Following husband’s advice, we descended the wheel after our ten-minute circles and walked along rue de Rivoli, past the super-expensive shops in the glorious arched passages, towards the restaurant Ellsworth on rue de Richelieu. This is a sophisticated place and thus terrible for a simple eater like me. I picked kale salad as the only dish on the menu with only one or two things I don’t like — a slow-cooked egg on a bed of kale and leeks with hazelnuts, topped with melted cheese. Yes, I know it sounds fabulous to you. Noah was perfectly happy with his chicken liver parfait with pear chutney and braised beef cheek.
We decided to go elsewhere for dessert. Surely there was a creperie in this city of boulangeries and patisseries. There was indeed said Ellsworth, and it was even open at 10PM. So we unfortunately walked the five minutes to Creperie Framboise hoping indeed for a delicious raspberry crepe or two. The crepes arrived too fast after our order to have any kind of subtlety or quality — mine simply had cheap honey squished over the top of old bananas and was somewhere between too crispy and burned, Noah’s not much better. Well, they were cheap. We downed them and decided to call it a night.
I gave Noah many choices for Day Two but no matter what I said, he replied “Eiffel Tower?” so finally I had to stop pretending I didn’t understand his accent and agree to take him there. We ubered to the barren garden of the Champs de Mars, and the base of the tower. Even though it wasn’t even 10AM, the line was fairly long. We were through the security check within forty minutes and decided to take the stairs as there was no wait, versus waiting in the sizeable queue for the elevator. This proved to be a brilliant decision. You get to walk up the inside of one of the legs of the steel structure to the first and then second floors. 709 steps. Only took us twenty minutes. You can even stand on a glass floor and look down at the ground below — not as exciting as it might sound as the glass is not remotely clear or thin so you just get a foggy view of some folks below. From the second floor, there was then no queue at all to take that specific elevator (different from the one at the bottom) right up to the top so we were off and away. It was a beautifully sunny if freezing day so we could see perfectly in all directions. After a circumperambulation around the top, we sped elevatorly downwards and continued on our journey. First, to Place du Trocadero to get the classic photo of us with the Eiffel Tower right behind in full view, and then down Avenue Kleber to the Arc de Triomphe.
Kleber gave us our best food find — Patisserie Coudrier Geffrey. I initially said “Let’s not bother” as the line was long, but then realized this is where the locals were shopping so it must be good. The chocolate éclair was the best we have ever had (not too sweet, not too chewy) although the apple pie broke our plastic fork (but tasted good).
Everything has changed in Paris since I lived her in 1991. Now, there are armed guards on all the main streets, and you have to go through security checks at every national monument. To go up the Arc de Triomphe, a line forms in the tunnel underneath the Etoile (“star”) roundabout at the centre of which it stands. An incredible twelve major streets of Paris all start (or end) at this star. A fifteen minute wait, and then we could climb up the Arc to the top, thankfully much lower than the Eiffel Tower and so also giving a different kind of view. We could see down the famous Champs-Elysées to the Ferris wheel on the Place de la Concorde and then the Louvre beyond. The Eiffel Tower, always visible from any height in Paris, towered over the southern view. On descending, we then walked down the Champs-Elysées, looking in the window of many posh shops, which in today’s world includes many sneaker stores given the current cost of the limited-edition items. On we went past the Ferris wheel and into the Musée de l’Orangerie right next to it in the Jardin des Tuileries. The Louvre has a long line all day yet the Orangerie, with its incredible galleries of French impressionist art and its two rooms each with four huge curved Monet water-lily paintings had hardly any wait at all. Inside, it is overwhelming how much priceless and beautiful paintings line the walls. You can take photos without flash and getting one of my son with a huge water-lily behind, looking like no one else is even in the room, was very satisfying — and a much better experience than getting 10-seconds at the Louvre in front of the tiny Mona Lisa, protected by 30-feet of security glass and surrounded by the thronging hordes.
We had sort of forgotten about lunch so it was definitely time to eat. We went past the Louvre and up to the Comedie Francaise. Opened in 1680, this is the oldest still-active theatre in the world. I incorrectly thought the quaint-looking and busy Café de la Comedie would surely have good food for all those theatre-goers. Not at all. Extraordinarily, smoking is allowed in this café, but even without the added delights of the smell of nicotine, the food was not good. I was excited to finally get a salade nicoise in Paris, as it is one of my favourite meals. Not here. The lettuce was tired, the eggs came covered in mayonnaise, and the dressing was DIY “Here’s your oil and vinegar”. Noah’s beef bourginon was lumps of meat in a weak broth — edible but hardly inspiring. Luckily, as we walked on to the Centre Pompidou, we passed the tiny Laouz, an Algerian patisserie with a huge range of tiny beautiful almond-based desserts. A strawberry and a caramel-chip one took the nicotine taste of lunch out of our mouths and substituted it with something much better.
The Centre Pompidou, designed by Richard Rogers in 1977is famous for being the first building in the world to have the ventilation and usual interior electrical infrastructure on the outside of its façade, carried in large ducts and long white pipes. The view from the top over the oldest part of Paris, known as Le Marais, is stunning, but we did not have time for that. We walked on to the Place des Vosges, the most beautiful square in all of Paris, built by Henry VI in the 17th century. There are several nice looking restaurants and cafes bordering the square. Don’t go into the nice-looking Café Hugo as, continuing our bad luck with dining fare, my son had such an unimpressive crepe that he could not eat it (flambé rum and bananas in theory but totally bland in actuality) that we sent it back. They did not charge us for it, which was classy, I guess. And my coffee there was very nice.
Now it was 5pm and I was better prepared for Catacombs Attempt 2. The uber came without issue and we hopped in, arriving at the Catacombs entrance at 5.30pm. Even on a freezing Sunday, the line was still long but we bravely bared the miserable cold for an hour, as our feet went numb and our noses dripped, and finally made it inside. This was truly for Noah, as visiting once a lifetime to see six million skeletons with the bones jumbled up and laid out in a stacking mechanism is surely enough. Piles of femurs stacked on tibias and then skulls, with femurs and humeruses (humeri?) on top, and then a few more skulls to top it off with. Whoever chose these patterns certainly had a lust for the macabre. You walk down deep into the former quarries of Paris from which stones were hewn out in the 16th-18th centuries in order to build the city, and this is where the bones lie. It only takes about half-an-hour to visit but a long time to forget afterwards.
I wanted my son to experience the very efficient French metro so we took the RER train (station Denfer-Rocherau) and then the Metro-14 (to Les Halles) back to the hotel. Less than a minute waiting for either train. It was time for a final bad dinner — Restaurant le Mesturet, highly recommended by the hotel. This had such horrible after-effects that my son’s stomach hurt all night and I didn’t feel too fabulous either. They describe themselves as a “classic Parisien bistro” and given our bad experiences at all the other ones, I would have to agree with them.
We left the restaurant and went back to the hotel to curl up in bed before our early flight back to the US the next day, filled with amazing memories of the gloriously beautiful city and its less glorious food.