We arrived at Gare d’Austerlitz after a surprisingly decent night of sleep on the train. As we emerged from the station, looking for the Metro, we realized that taking the subway with our very large suitcase would not be fun. Very few subway stations in Paris have escalators or elevators, which is possibly a result of the fact that many of them are over 100 years old. We mapped the route to the Air BnB flat we’d booked for the city and, finding that it wasn’t too far, (about 1.3 miles) opted to walk. It was chilly but dry. Most of the route after we crossed the Seine was along Avenue Ledru Rollin. After about a half mile or so, we came upon a cafe that was advertising petit dejeuner (breakfast) for €7.50 so we decided to stop and eat something. We knew if we continued to the flat without eating or finding somewhere to get food, we might not be able to focus properly. The breakfast consisted of a chunk of buttered baguette, some jam, a croissant, a large glass of orange juice, and some very good coffee. Sadly I can’t remember the name of the place other than that it had Artisan in the title, but in Paris that doesn’t narrow things down much.
The flat was easy to get into. The hosts here have several Air BnBs and they actually use a lock box to hold the keys for the place and there is a code for the building entry. The flat, which is up three flights of worn wooden stairs, is very very small but should meet our needs despite not having anything for cooking other than a small microwave and two burners. On the other hand, it has a great shower! The street is noisy at times and the trash truck seems to come down the road several times an evening for some reason, but it’s mainly peaceful and there are lots of shops nearby. As well as restaurants if we want to eat locally, though the Spanish restaurant downstairs that is on the recommendation list provided by our hosts is rather out of our price range.
Since we felt relatively rested and we knew that the best weather of the week was likely to be Wednesday and Thursday, we decided that we would do a walking tour in the afternoon. I have been to Paris twice before but had never been to the Arc de Triomphe or the Champs Élysées, so we decided to make that our objective for the day, following at least part of the walking tour from the Rick Steves Paris book, which we bought for the Kindle. This was the first time we didn’t have a hard copy of the book.*
Despite having had breakfast, we were still low on fuel, especially since that meal had contained no protein. Therefore, we stopped for a sandwich and a drink that we purchased from a bakery called Maison Landemaine, which turned out to be a chain. It was surprisingly good but we felt better at having bought from there when we told Angie’s cousin Jenni about it and she gave it a seal of approval, saying she had a friend who was a boulanger there and that it’s one of the better chains! We had landed at the spot where the bakery was because we were having trouble finding a tabac (tobacconist) where we could buy a carnet (book of tickets for the Metro) and the first station entrance we tried to go down didn’t even have ticket machines. In the end we ended up at the next station down, and this was where we found the bakery, near Place Leon Blum (a three-time prime minister of France), having eschewed the nearby McDonalds as a dining option. Feeling adequately fueled, we went into the station and made the pleasant discovery that we could use our chipped credit card to buy the carnet without having to enter a PIN. Angie’s written about the whole chip and PIN/chip and signature thing a couple of times.
We successfully navigated our way to the Arc de Triomphe on a lovely sunny afternoon and dutifully read from the Rick Steves book to learn more about what we were looking at. Originally designed (as I understand it) as a monument to the self-aggrandisement of Napoleon (though not completed until after his death), it is indeed quite grand. As most people probably know, it’s been the scene of celebration and ceremony for more than just the conclusion of the Tour de France. The Nazis marched through when they took Paris, and De Gaulle marched through when he took it back for France. Angie noted that even the side arches are bigger than any of the Roman arches we saw at the Forum or elsewhere on our travels. But you could also see some features that are pretty similar to the Roman arches we’ve looked at. Sadly, we didn’t take any pictures here, but you can google it. 😉
Having satisfied ourselves at the Arc and paid our respects at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier (bedecked with flowers one day after the Remembrance Day holiday), we began following the guided walk down the Champs Élysées. There are some parts we found interesting and others to which we paid little attention (the Louis Vuitton flagship store being in the latter group). We did enjoy checking out the car dealerships for Citroen, Peugeot and Mercedes. Unlike the dealerships we are used to, these storefronts don’t actually have many cars in them, but often showed off some of their cars of various vintages, and had plenty of branded merchandise for sale too. We particularly enjoyed the Peugeot dealership, which had an exhibit based on their concept car with copper and carbon body as well as such objects as salt and pepper grinders for sale. Apparently this was a core part of the early business for the company and we overheard one couple telling a salesperson that they were there replacing a Peugeot pepper mill that had lasted for 22 years of their 27-year marriage!
The tour book points out the Qatar Embassy, one of the few original buildings left from the original 1853 grand design of Georges Eugene Haussmann, who was appointed by Napoleon III to renovate the city and did a pretty spectacular job of it. I’m not sure many individuals have left such a major mark on the look and layout of a major city as Haussmann did in Paris.
By contrast, McDonald’s was actually a stop on the tour too. Apparently there was much resistance to the opening of a McDonald’s on this hallowed shopping street, but it is now the most profitable outlet of the entire company. To the other extreme on the culinary scale, the tour also directed us to Fouquet’s and Ladurée, two of the bistros/cafés in the area that have excellent reputations. Their prices were on the excellent end also, and not in a good way for us.
We walked as far as the Grand and Petit Palais, a busy area that is currently being set up for the Christmas market. We are not sure how much will be good and how much will be dross, but we plan to check it out after it opens.
The Grand and Petit Palais’ were built for the 1900 Worlds Fair and are now museums/exhibition halls. The Grand has entry fees for everything, the Petit only has them for their special exhibits, which didn’t interest us (something on Baccarat crystal). We checked out the other parts of the Petit, which has great floors and a pretty garden. The art wasn’t that appealing but Angie enjoyed a peculiar exhibit that juxtaposed stuffed (taxidermically, that is) animals with art pieces that featured similar creatures.
Below are some pictures from this area, including the above mentioned Charles de Gaulle, and Winston Churchill, the prime minister who steered England through World War II. The street between the two buildings is named for him.
Also throwing in a picture of Pont Alexandre III here, since Angie and I didn’t get a picture of it when we had to run across it at night during a major lightning and rain storm when we were in Paris in 2011.
After all this walking we had had enough for one day, so began working our way back to the flat, trying to find a grocery store on the way. We went to one that the owners of the flat had recommended and walked in while the proprietor was in the midst of a heated argument with someone. We didn’t really care for the “vibe” so we decided to head to the Carrefour Express we had noticed along Rue Voltaire earlier in the day. It wasn’t super-well stocked but they had enough for our needs, including a lovely looking cauliflower and chilled wine. We also stopped at a butcher and picked up some ready-cooked chicken drumsticks, which proved to be very tasty. We steamed the cauliflower and cooked some of the noodles we had brought with us, served with a very basic tomato sauce. When you only have two burners and a microwave, you find ways to make it work.
On Thursday morning we decided to visit one of the local street markets in the area, the Marché de la Bastille. The market was a mix of the sort of clothing we’ve seen at many of the other markets we’ve been to on this trip (scarves and hats, leather wallets) and food. There were fruit and vegetable stalls, fishmongers with really good looking fish and a lot of variety, and a few butchers and cheese purveyors. We didn’t buy much, but sampled a banana and Nutella crepe and picked up some veggies, cheese and fruit.
For lunch, we stopped at a Chinese restaurant on our route and picked up some chicken, noodles and dumplings. They were pretty good, especially the noodles.
After lunch we set off for our second objective of the day, Notre Dame Cathedral, another place I had yet to visit on previous trips to Paris (I had seen the outside, since the outside of buildings often interest me more). It was pretty crowded both inside and outside but we had a decent look around. The architecture and the flying buttresses and height of the nave are really what impress about this place. It’s breathtaking. From what we read, most of the heavy lifting (literally) was done by the locals. When the cathedral was built (it took around 200 years) Paris was still a pretty small town but the locals wanted a cathedral and so they built one. It was one of the first examples of gothic architecture and it is a doozy.
There’s quite a lot to see on Ile de la Cité where the cathedral is located, including Sainte-Chapelle. The attraction of Sainte-Chapelle is the stained glass, which is one of the oldest surviving examples of medieval times. Apparently when the light is right, the 1,100 different scenes from the bible are amazing. My friend Molly called it mystical. Unfortunately the glass has been undergoing significant and much needed restoration for the past few years, and enough of the windows are covered and scaffolded over that we were unable to appreciate this effect. Nonetheless the level of detail in the windows was quite impressive. Once again, Angie pointed out (mis)representations of Moses with horns that should have been shafts of light. That old “rays” versus “horns” mistranslation rearing its ugly head again.
Some trivia notes on this church. First, unlike Notre Dame, it was built in only 6 years. Admittedly smaller but still quite a pace for a time when technology wasn’t very advanced. Also, there are actually two chapels here. The lower one was for the common folk and did not feature the incredible stained glass windows. The upper one was for the royals, though Louis IX did not have to clamber up the narrow spiral staircase to reach it. He had his own VIP entrance straight from his chambers in the palace. Finally, the reason why we start seeing these amazing stained glass windows from the 13th century onwards was because the Gothic architecture was the first to be able to support such large windows and let light in to this degree.
Other spots visited on is day included the legendary and original Shakespeare & Co., though actually not at its original location. We did not sample the famous Berthillon ice cream on Ile Ste. Louis on this visit because we were really low on cash and had forgotten to stop by an ATM, but we went there on the last trip (and for me, the one before that) so we didn’t mind as much.
We came home to make a simple leek and potato soup for dinner with fresh bread and cheese thanks to the Bastille market and bakeries that stay open into the early evening. We thought must have picked a good one because there’s been a line every time we’ve been to it and this also turned out to be another branch of Maison Landemaine. We also tried their meringues ancien for dessert, which were very tasty. Turns out two of the six Paris branches are walking distance from our flat. Anyway, it was nice to end the evening with some good comfort food.
*Rick Steves on Kindle. It’s useful to carry less weight, but e book is not as easy to navigate as the hard copy since you can’t easily jump from one section to the other, though we are finding ways to work with it.