Five Days in Paris: Day 1, posted March 15, 2009 at 12:58 PM
Let me begin with some general thoughts about travel. I haven't travelled far and wide, but I've taken in a decent share of sites both domestic and foreign. Many middle-class Americans make their first trip abroad between high school and college, or during college. I was thirty before I traveled overseas. But before that I had been to Hawaii and to a handful of major American cities--Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Nashville, Washington--as well as to various beachy spots along the eastern seaboard. My first overseas trip was to London, followed quickly in succession by Rome, Paris, Bilbao, Venice, Bologna, Florence and the Tuscan countryside. London and Paris each have had return visits. Not bad for a decade's worth of travel.
My usual pattern of taking a significant vacation is once every two or three years. I'm hoping to increase that frequency as I round the age of 40 and must accept finally the fact that I am a full-fledged adult and retain nothing of actual youth aside from various traits of immaturity. (Perhaps I should have accepted that at 30, but I guess my failure to do so is just one more of those immature traits!). So, I booked a shorter, more affordable trip to Paris this winter, in the hope that it will not be two years before I once again hop an ocean. Now, mind you, I dropped a buttload of cash on this trip--but it was nothing compared to what was spent on my three-week Italian extravaganza in 2007. But affordability is more than money--it's also time away from work, amount of effort needed to prepare for the trip, number of arrangements to be made, etc. For this trip to Paris, I let expedia.com do most of the work for travel arrangements, polled a few friends for restaurant recommendations, finagled ballet tickets from a scalping agency, and bought a new raincoat. Pretty easy.
And then I ran smack into the downside of taking a five-day trip: a foot of snow fell the night before our departure, crippling the entire Northeast, and canceling hundreds of flights. Stephanie's train from DC to Newark was canceled. We were each struggling with luggage through snow and slush. I did a pretty good job of not worrying about what I couldn't control, of resigning myself to the idea that we'd probably be delayed by a day. But when you've got a five-day trip, a single day's delay means flushing 20% of your vacation right down the toilet. But this story has a happy ending. The snow slowed, Stephanie boarded the next train, the runways were plowed, and our plane took off about half an hour late. Whew!
We arrived at Charles de Gaulle airport mid-morning, and took a taxi to our hotel, the Hotel de Buci, on rue Buci in the heart of the touristy St. Germain area. Talk about centrally located! We could only have been more central if we'd snuck into the attic of Notre Dame. We had a small room, with a generous bathroom, on the fifth floor with lovely, very Parisian views. It's a lively neighborhood, full of cafes, hotels, fresh markets, shopping, students, and tourists. But as we were solidly in the off-season--and in a recession to boot--there were many times we felt we were the only American tourists in Paris.
After unpacking and showering, we set off toward the east to find lunch. We strolled through the Latin Quarter, weak with jet lag and hunger, toward the Pantheon, and found ourselves choosing between a couple different cafes on rue Soufflot--and settled on Les Fontaines. I realized as we went in that I ate dinner there with Beth back in 2005! It was packed with locals all talking up a storm and we waited 5 or 6 minutes for a table. We both had calf's liver prepared in a white Balsamic vinegar sauce, served with very buttery mashed potatoes. It was tangy and scrumptious. We split a plate of three cheeses afterward and each downed a strong espresso to boost our jet-lagging spirits.
The day had turned chillier, so we wanted back to the hotel to add a layer. On the way, we stopped at a pharmacy to buy body lotion and shaving cream. What is it about French pharmacies that is so enticing and fulfilling? I bought my items from a rather serious, well-dressed woman. Despite the Euro's recent weakness ($1.25 to the Euro), it seemed to cost quite a bit. Anyway, after stopping at the hotel we headed out to go to where so many Parisian vacations begin: the Eiffel Tower. Somehow I missed going up to the top on my first trip. We walked all the way there, across the gorgeous rue Jacob then cutting down to Blvd. St. Germain, across rue de Grenelle, through Invalides, and into the heart of the 7th arrondissement. On the rue Cler we turned into a pedestrian-only block, with its butchers and fishmongers, its fromageries and bars, and we settled into a charming cafe called Le Petit Cler. Sitting outside, protected from the wind by large plastic partitions, we watched Paris go by as we drank champagne (me) and wine (Stephanie). We tried to talk as much as the locals who sat nearby, but we gave up and headed instead into the Parc du Champ de Mars, at the foot of the Eiffel Tower.
Riding up the old elevator to the top of the tower is a humbling experience. It feels somewhat rickety and--unsurprisingly--mechanical. And it's a long way up. We arrived at the top just a bit before sunset. Paris is a great looking city from there (as it is from down on the street!)--curvy and grand, a sea of small pebbles punctuated by a few gestures of grandiosity--the Arc de Triomphe, Sacre Coeur, Invalides, the Place de la Concorde. At dusk, from above, the city was all silvery white. And then the sky darkened and lights began to come on all over town and Paris was then wrapped in a warm yellow glow. The streets began to be more visible than the buildings, and the Seine was transformed from a dark winding path into a jeweled golden chain, all her bridges becoming illuminated charms. It was perfect.
We walked all the back to the St. Germain along the river for most of the way. Crossing the Esplanade des Invalides I was just overwhelmed by how simply beautiful everything is. Despite already knowing from photos and paintings, and from my own previous visit, it's shocking to be plunked down in the middle of such beauty.
For dinner we went to Le Relais de l'Entrecote, where Marijane had sent me last time. It was blessedly close to our hotel, and it was as fun and delicious as last time. All they do is steak and fries, and the do it well. A small salad with a mustard dressing, a steak in their "secret" sauce (of butter, lemon, garlic, and some blend of green herbs). Profiteroles for me and apple tart with honey ice cream for Stephanie for dessert. Yum! We drank a bottle of their house red wine, served slightly chilled. Perfect.
We were exhausted from travel, so we made an early night of it. Wednesday through Saturday coming soon, and the whole trip's-worth of pictures is here.