Best of Paris
Paris. The city of light. When I think of Paris. I think of grand buildings marching down straight streets. Iron railings on balconies. Large wooden doors guarding cobble stoned courtyards. Art - paintings, sculptures. Centuries of masterpieces. The quintessential portrait of Western culture. But the reality of the place is very different.
As wonderful as the city is, as many delights as it contains, it is also dirty and difficult. I've never come and had a "perfect" experience. For every fabulous moment there's one that's not so nice. Often the good ones come unexpectedly, right as I want to cry in frustration because something I've carefully planned is going sideways. As a result I've found the best way to enjoy a visit to Paris is to expect the unexpected. It's the ultimate go with the flow place.
The good experiences are enough to keep me coming back. I love that the city is different every time I come. It's mercurial nature is what makes it distinct. And French. The highlights of my latest trip were almost all unexpected, and new.
I've been to Notre Dame before. It's big, and gothic, and dark inside. The rose window was very pretty, but it didn't take my breath away. I've always thought of it as one of those checklist places that every destination has. The kind that you want to see once, but don't ever need to go back. It's not far from Saint-Germain-des-Pres where I usually stay. I like to visit the vintage book stalls that line the Quai de Conti along the Seine. The two distinctive towers of the cathedral are easily visible from that vantage point. But this trip I walked all the way to Shakespeare & Company, the English speaking bookstore just across the river from the square in front of Notre Dame.
Despite the cold and the threat of rain I crossed the street to the bridge that connects the Left Bank to the Ile de la Cite, hoping to find the zero point marker I remembered seeing as a child. But the cathedral stopped me in my tracks. It's huge. Kind of obvious, but I'd never been fully aware of it's size before. The enormity of it made my jaw drop. All I could do was stand there an marvel at the ingenuity required to build it. This is a monument. An expression of devotion and arrogance designed to both humble and inspire. A feat it still accomplishes centuries later.
I didn't go in. I didn't need to. Standing on that bridge I was reminded of how small we are in the grand scheme of things, and how the boundaries of what we can create are almost limitless.
Place des Vosges
The square is the oldest planned square in Paris, built in the early 17th century, and you can feel the echoes of the past in the arcades that surround it. Victor Hugo lived here, at number 6, along side other writers and artists. Even though there are two roads in and two out it feel private, contained.
We went for a Sunday lunch to one of the restaurants on the ground floor. It was cloudy, threatening rain, and cold. But as soon as we entered the square, the hustle and bustle of the rest of the city fell away. The brick facades seemed bright and cozy despite the weather.
After a delicious lunch we wandered across to the patisserie, Carette, and picked up croissants and pastries for later.
One of the reasons we like staying in the Saint Germain des Pres area is the proximity to art galleries and the National School of Fine Arts. An added perk, that we just realized this trip, is proximity to art supply stores of amazing quality, one of which is Magasin Sennelier.
Located a few doors down from the school on the Quai Voltaire it sits in a modest shop front. Unlike the large stores with lots of floor space that I'm used to in the US the store is tiny in comparison. Stuffed to the brim with drawers and shelves bursting with pencils, powders, paints, inks, and pastels in almost any color you can think of it's like a toy store for artists. They shelves are stacked so high you have to use a ladder to get to some of them.
In a similar store in the US everything is out in the open and you are expected to help yourself. Here, many of the supplies are tucked away behind the counter and if you want them you have to ask. It makes the experience of buying something much more intimate and personal.
They've been in business since 1887 and you can easily imagine painters of the late 19th century dropping in to buy supplies. A magical visit that stoked my imagination.
Lunch at La Fresque
Good restaurants are surprisingly hard to find in Paris. Especially ones that serve traditional French food. And good ones that are reasonably priced are even scarcer. La Fresque is both.
I've talked about it before, but I'm always blown away by it. The food is simple and delicious, and the place is frequented almost entirely by locals. I think we were the only Americans in the place the day we went. The locals come in the middle of the work day for the pre fixe lunch. A full three courses, including dessert.
You may wonder why the clientele being made up of locals is so important. Restaurants filled with tourists have a different vibe. The customers are almost always on edge, tired, or bothered. Even ones who are enjoying themselves. A restaurant filled with locals is more relaxed. Unlike in the US where lunch is quick break, at La Fresque lunch is a true break. They linger over their food.
While in most restaurants in Paris you find traditional dishes, they don't taste the same as they do here. Things are simpler, the ingredients perhaps less fine, but the taste is amazing. This is what I imagine French cooking tastes like when made at someone's home. It's like getting a peek behind the curtain, or being let in on a great secret. An unforgettable experience.
Photos by Sophia Dunkin-Hubby