Friday, May 4, 2012

Paris in the Springtime....

…is rainy.  And it can be chilly.  But it’s PARIS so who cares.  It’s been on my “to visit” list forever and I finally got there.  I went with my daughter; the one who studied French in school as I did.  We only have elementary French but it was great to be able to use it once in awhile.  Fortunately in the tourist areas of Paris just about everyone speaks some English.

We stayed at what used to be referred to as pensions but now are called boutique hotels-- a little place with only 45 rooms on the Rue d’Ecole in the Latin Quarter.  From our hotel we could see Notre Dame on one side and the Pantheon on the other.We were one block from Blvd St. Germaine which has lots of shops. a.  This was, at least partly, a shopping trip.  And walking distance from St. Germaine des Pres and the famous Les Deux Magots (the two maggots), a restaurant and meeting place for writers such as Hemingway and Jean-Paul Satre.

What I liked about Paris is that no matter where you are, there is always a flower shop, a bakery, a chocolate shop, several clothing stores and tons of restaurants.  And while you might find the same brand with several branches all over the city, each brand is unique.  Unlike here where you find the same style clothes in JCPenny's as you do in Macys, clothing boutiques have different styles of clothing, some edgy some more conservative, some imported.  But each is unique.

Paris is old and the buildings weren’t meant to house huge department stores.  Though there are a few, I really preferred the smaller boutiques.  One tiny shop had street level space that was about 12’ x 14’ and open stairways to the 2nd and 3rd floors of the same size.  They even managed to fit in 1 changing booth. I can’t imagine how many building codes would be violated if that were done here.  Some stores like Au Vieux Campeur (the old camper) had 3 shops we could see from our hotel and 2 more a block away on St. Germaine.  Because the shops are small each one specialized—men’s wear, women’s wear, children’s, and equipment. 

Open air markets pop up on different days in different areas of Paris.  The locals know when there’ll be one in their district.  On Thursday morning we were pleasantly surprised to see one on St. Germaine just down the hill from our hotel.  Tents included several with scarves, a fish monger, jewelry, fresh flowers, and a women selling several flavors of foie gras.

We also came across a small fair set up next to the Eiffel Tower.  Craft Fair! I thought.  Well not exactly.  Just another version of the street markets and flea markets of Paris with skarves, baked goods, imported watches, imported jewelry.  But this time, in this mass of resellers, we found what could possibly be some truly handmade jewelry.  This man sells in Paris jewelry made in Italy by his sister, Lisa Bano.  I looked her up on the internet and found her listed as a vendor in a craft show in Italy.  Maybe it’s really handmade.

women are predominantly small so while you can easily find size xs or 0 it’s a bit more difficult to find a large.  I did buy a couple of knitted tops but I was very excited about the shoes.  Since I don’t often have reason to dress up, I’ve taken to wearing comfortable shoes.  But I really don’t want them to look like orthopedic shoes or sneakers.  We were advised before leaving for Paris that we should not wear sneakers in the city.  Seems they are dead giveaway that you’re a tourist. Parisian women don’t wear sneakers but they do wear a variety of comfortable tie shoes, loafers, or strappy shoes that most shoe stores carry among their 6” platforms and edgy United Nude types.
So several of the Paris shoe stores have stylish yet comfortable shoes and I bought them.  Actually I bought 3 pair and a pair of sandals.  Prices are generally under $100 unless you’re buying designer shoes.

On the right bank and across the Seine from Notre Dame is the Marais District. This is one of Paris’ oldest quarters.  Once favored by royalty it eventually fell into ruin.   Comprising a rich ethnic mix, this unique area houses the remains of the old Jewish quarter.  Jews first settled here in the 1300s, with a large influx coming from eastern and central Europe around the turn of the 20th century.  

 Since its revival in the 1960's, it has become as a center of Parisian artistic and cultural life and is one of the only areas that preserves the narrow streets and architectural styles of Medieval and Renaissance-era Paris.  Now kosher butchers mix with falafel shops and Italian designer shoes.
The streets are still cobbled here and the area is swamped with boutiques, lively bars, bistros and galleries.  I was told I’d find some great boutiques here but on Monday morning most places were closed.  It seems people don’t rise early in Marais as it wasn’t until about 2pm that we noticed some open shops and an increase in activity.
                                                       Chocolate Hippopotomi
My daughter decided that she wanted to try samples from as many chocolate shops as we could find.  She came with a list and we tried to find as many as possible so she could buy a bar of chocolate from each to compare them.  We didn’t find all those chocolate shops though we found a few she didn’t have listed.  There’s chocolate on every block in Paris.  Personally, I know the difference between European chocolate and Hershey/Nestle.  It’s creamier, not as sweet, and melts in your mouth.  But among the shops in Paris, they all taste the same to me—wonderful.  Not being a chocolate connoisseur, my personal favorite was Larnicol.  You can scoop truffles, caramels and various chocolates with nuts from bins and it all sells for the same price by weight. 

 So compared to a lovely, fancy box of 6 decorated ¾" x ¾" chocolates for 28 euros, I bought 3 bags of truffles, jellies, and caramels for 35 euros.  They’re also open much later than a lot of the other chocolate shops.
We didn’t go to Paris to eat, though we did, of course.  We had the names of some restaurants recommended by Americans living in Paris but we never found them.  We pretty much ate when we were hungry at restaurants nearby.  About every 3rd shop is a restaurant, bistro, or café.  The menus are posted outside.  So we just went to the one with good choices that had the most customers.  We never had a bad or expensive meal. 

Getting Around in Paris

After doing some research I decided to purchase a combo Paris Pass, museum pass, and Metro Pass.   The drawback about this is that they are all only good for 2 days—in a row. Paris Pass allows you to hop on and hop off a tour bus and the museum pass gets you into 55 museums in Paris.  We used these 2 passes simultaneously to get to all the tourist “must visits”.  The bus worked out very well.  It makes 9 stops and comes by each every 15 minutes or so.  We picked it up at Notre Dame and took it up the Champs Elysees to the Arc de Triomphe and Eiffel Tower but bypassed the Palais Royal and L’Opera.  On the second day we took it to the Musee d’Orsay, L’Orangerie, & The Louvre.

While the Louvre is the world’s largest art museum and certainly houses some wonderful works of art, I have to say that I like the Musee D’Orsay much better.  If you go to Paris for the first time, of course you’ll have to see the Louvre, Mona Lisa, and Venus de Milo.  And you can take pictures there though you can’t use a flash.  But if I go back again, I’ll definitely return to the Musee d’Orsay.  It’s a converted train station that features Cezanne, Degas, Delacroix, Denis, Gauguin, Manet, Monet, Pissarro, Renoir, Sisley, Toulouse-Lautrec, and my favorite, Van Gogh.  There are sculptures as well and in the main hall we found 3 busts done in bronze and marble by Charles Cordier.  While taking photos wasn’t allowed, I managed to sneak a shot of one of these busts.  Doesn’t he look familiar?

While the bus pass was a great time saver, the museum pass is a big waste of money.  There’s no way you’ll visit 55 museums in 2 days, or even half that.  As it's not a museum, it doesn’t get you into the Eiffel Tower. And while it advertises that it will allow you to bypass the long lines, that only happened at the Louvre and Arc de Triomphe.  There are security issues at some museums like D’Orsay so though you don’t have to buy a ticket, you do still have to wait in line and have your bags searched.  

We used the Metro Pass on Saturday to get to the Flea Market in northern Paris.  Once we figured out how easy it was to get around, we bought more tickets on Monday and took it to Marais.  The system is easier than the NYC subway. The stations are clean and, like NY, you sometimes run into musicians—only here there was an accordion player with a repertoire of traditional French tangos and waltzes.  It was so French!

Speaking of the Flea, it isn't like Brimfield at all.  The permanent installations there sell serious antiques with serious price tags.  Oh, there are some vintage jewelry dealers and vintage postcard shops but their prices are high as well.  The temporary tents that line the route to the Flea are just filled with more of those resellers of imported jewelry, t-shirts, scarves, jeans, leather coats, fake leather shoes, and... hookahs.   


  1. How wonderful to come over to your blog and be transported to Paris! :-)) My hubby said that one day he would take me to Paris. We'll be celebrating our 30th anniversary this summer and STILL Paris has been a No Show! But now I feel like I've been, thanks to you! :-)

  2. Glad you enjoyed my post. I'll be putting up another one as well with some tips and observations in case you manage to take that trip.

  3. Really interesting post, thank you. I agree with the fact that a museum pass for 2 days is total waste. I heard about a paris combo pass (lite) that fit short stays.