New to the travelogue series on Some Infinite Thing? See past travels!
January 2017 update: Given Austin and I have returned to Paris a handful of times since this travelogue was written, I’ve updated the “Planning your trip” section with some new favourites and finds not included in the original post. Also check out our Champagne, France travelogue! –Maria
I was reluctant to write this travelogue. I mean, five days in Paris?! So many guides exist, already. What would mine offer but more of the same? Likely some more of the same, yes, but we had a wonderful glimpse into Paris during our visit. I thought it worth sharing for anyone considering or planning a trip in her beautiful — and quieter — fall months.
October may not seem like the most obvious time to visit Paris, with most visitors flocking to her in the spring and summer — for good reason — the days are sunny and warm and resplendent as only Paris can be. But Austin and I decided on Paris as we dreamed up our first anniversary trip as something drippingly romantic and full of good eating.
We arrived late-morning after an easy transatlantic hop from Toronto’s Pearson International Airport (YYZ) to Charles de Gaulle (CDG). We caught the RER into the city proper, serendipitously walking onto the gare’s platform just as an express pulled into the station, with the ride taking about 35 minutes on our mostly empty train.
We popped off at our metro stop, Saint-Paul-Le-Marais, in the heart of the 4e arrondissement. The fall day was magical — blindingly sunny and crisp — illuminating everything in warm light. Our apartment was a two minute walk from the metro on Rue Saint Paul. We meandered along the cobblestone noting the bakeries and cheese-mongers and markets, people spilling out of cafes into the streets on such a perfect Saturday afternoon. I squealed upon spotting a Laurent Dubois (one of Paris’ best fromageries) a few steps from our rental.
Our fourth-floor walkup in Le Marais, the historic Jewish Quarter, was perfectly Parisian. We were greeted by our host, Regine, who led us through the apartment, rattling off its features in French at breakneck speed, her gauzy linen jacket ruffling in the breeze through the massive open windows.
By this point, we were famished. We washed and set out for a late lunch, having not eaten since we left Toronto. A couple blocks from our apartment, we decided on a little tartine shop, its patrons spilling into the street, tables crammed with loaded toasts and jugs of wine. A sardine tartine for me, lardon tartine for Austin and carafe of wine. We were restored in the leisurely sunshine.
On our way back to the apartment, we popped into the shops for some dinner provisions — a few cheeses, baguette, pear tart and wine to enjoy later that night. We power napped to prepare for an evening of adventure.
Sundown marked Nuit Blanche, the annual all-night art festival that originated in Paris and now has outposts in over 120 cities, including Toronto, Montreal, Brussels, Rome and Melbourne. This is Austin’s favourite event of the year in Toronto, so he was happy to experience it in its homeland.
We set out at dusk, map in hand, and explored a good chunk of the exhibits by foot, the city bustling and bright with installations every few blocks. It was the perfect way to situate ourselves and see so many different parts of the city by night. Frequent stops for hot chocolate and coffee provided sustenance.
Having arrived home in the wee hours of the morning, we slept until our bodies woke us, just in time to make lunch reservations at Guy Savoy’s Les Bouquinistes on Île de la Cité. The restaurant is named for the open-air vendors (les bouquinistes) whose iconic green stands dot the riverbank. The focused contemporary French menu was a delicious way to begin our first full day in Paris.
Bellies full, we took advantage of our location for a stroll through the Jardins Luxembourg, which were overflowing with people enjoying the crisp fall weather. We may have been full from lunch, but it didn’t prevent a quick stop at Angelina — they have a location within the gardens — for a cup of their signature chocolat chaud with piles of chantilly cream. Neither Austin or I are macaron lovers so this was our touristic sugar compromise to Ladurée or Pierre Hermé, as tempting as the ubiquitous Instagram photos may be.
After an afternoon nap (a theme here… we never deny ourselves rest on holiday!) we popped a bottle of Champagne to start the evening. Our lovely host had left a bottle in the fridge.
Dressed for dinner, we took the metro toward Trocadéro for dinner at Les Cocottes de Christian Constant. This meal produced one of my favourite dishes of 2014, ravioli with langoustines, artichoke and cream. It arrived in a little cast iron pot, two big free-form ravioli draped over a thick artichoke gel and covered in an intensely seafood-y cream. When someone asks me what perfect French food is, this dish is my reply.
We set out for a post-dinner stroll, and both let out an audible “Oh!” as we rounded the corner and ran smack dab into the Eiffel Tower. It was completely unexpected (we did not realize with all the densely packed buildings how close were were) and magical moment. Like the movies, n’est-ce pas? Being good tourists, we snapped a few photos and wandered up the Trocadéro to catch our metro home.
January 2017 note: On subsequent returns to Paris, we’ve been sad to see the entire base of the tower surrounded by concrete barricades and fencing, barring pedestrian entry. While I understand the protections given recent security concerns, one of my dearest memories is laying right under the tower with Austin taking photos of her underbelly. I’m glad to have it as a memory.
The next morning, we enjoyed a tiny breakfast of brioche and espresso at home, knowing an entire afternoon of feasting was to come. As we planned in the months leading up to our trip, we tossed around ideas for our “break the bank” anniversary meal, eventually landing on L’Arpège, whose chef Alain Passard I have admired since my vegetarian days of yore for his vegetable-focused cooking. We walked the 45-minutes or so along the Seine to the restaurant, revving our appetites.
About four hours, a dozen courses and as many wines later, we left sated and wide-eyed at such a stunning meal. Passard himself makes the rounds during the cheese course to visit with everyone in the tiny dining room, and he had fun regaling us of his time spent in Toronto when he landed at our table. There could have been no better way to honour our first year of marriage than with an afternoon of eating and drinking and enjoying each other’s company.
When darkness fell, we bravely ventured out in a downpour and windstorm, wanting to visit the Sacre Coeur and having a hunch she’d look spectacular in the shiny black night. It was an eerie, otherworldly experience to wander up the Montmartre steps and through the mostly-deserted Basilica, with most tour groups and less-brave souls having departed because of the intense rain.
Still sated from our extravagant lunch, we decided to go in the opposite direction for a late-night dinner, stepping out our door just a few blocks to Paris’ fabled L’As du Fallafel for pitas, hummus and of course, fallafel sandwiches, which hit the spot in an entirely different way.
We started our penultimate day in Paris early, wanting to get to Versailles before the afternoon crowds arrived. We caught an express RER train, after a quick pop into Notre Dame to see her intricacies by daylight.
Oh, Versailles. I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect as we approached the grounds of this great chateau. Much of my research warned of being herded like cats, not being able to enjoy the intricacies of the elaborate rooms for the crowds, and feeling hurried and frazzled.
I think this is where our planning served us well (see: planning a travel itinerary). We opted to visit on one of the slowest days of the week, in the off-season and made sure to arrive early in the morning. No doubt, people were there — it is Versailles! — but I never felt rushed or overwhelmed by bodies, which was evident in my photos.
We planned to spend the entire day at Versailles, and it was a sound decision, allowing time to wander through the entire chateau, some of the gardens and both trianons, plus stop for lunch. One of my favourite moments of the trip was a (deserted! most people take the property’s little train) walk with Austin through the gardens to the Petit Trianon, just us two and the grounds’ sheep.
Aside: We had lunch at the Angelina (again!) housed in Versailles and Austin immediately ordered Champagne and caviar. He preempted my chiding — “Where else but Versailles would this be the most appropriate thing on the menu to order?!” I had to agree.
The site is dripping with history and a gilded opulence that I can’t quite comprehend. It is worth taking your time to explore the nooks and hidden details that would be missed on a cursory once-over of the property.
We headed back toward the RER into Paris as sunset approached. Realizing our train would take us into the Charles de Gaulle Etoile (and Arc de Triomphe) for a metro transfer, we made the most of it and popped out to enjoy the city views. Austin commented that the Arc was much more immense than he anticipated, and I agreed! It was a massive monolith. We climbed the 284 steps to the top for the sweeping views of the city.
Someone once commented to me that it’s a waste to ascend to the top of the Eiffel Tower — what fun are the city views without her in them? I couldn’t help but remember this quip as we took in the city from the top of the Arc, the tower silhouetted against the low-lying buildings and sunset.
Aside: hilariously, we had our first selfie stick sighting on the roof of the Arc. I thought it was just about the silliest thing I’d ever seen, and couldn’t believe it when selfie sticks started popping up everywhere in the months following that trip!
We cleaned up for our dinner reservations, about a 20 minute walk away right past Place de la Bastille and into the 11e at Bistrot Paul Bert, one of the city’s best loved bistrots and highly recommended by my Francophile boss. This was such a good meal, a simple 3-course prix fixe, written for the evening on a chalkboard the waiters drag from table to table — pig’s trotters, tartare, steak frites, souffle — traditional bistro food at its best. Austin made a comment about cancelling the rest of our reservations for the week and just returning to Paul Bert for our meals. It was that delicious and satisfying.
Day five began with an exciting turn of events: professional anniversary photos through the city! The day before as we enjoyed breakfast, I noticed my aunt share what was obviously a professional photo taken on a trip to Paris earlier in the year. With a bit of digging, we uncovered the photographer and popped her an email to see if she was free on such short notice. The stars aligned, because she was!
Over the course of the morning, we soldiered through some serious rain with our charming Aussie photographer and it was such a blast. We were drenched and we weren’t even properly styled (“What clean laundry do we have left?!” we laughed as we got ready that morning), but oh the love in those photos.
Our photographer commented that she’d rarely seen two people so happy and loving through such terrible weather, which made us smile. We love these iconic shots — at the Louvre, the Palais Royale, in the Jardin des Tuileries, the Galerie Vivienne and of course, with the Eiffel Tower — by which to remember our first anniversary in Paris (the below photo even became the front of our 2015 New Year card!).
I was smitten with the expansive and beautiful Jardin des Tuileries — leaves changing colours and playing in our photos against the gloomy grey skies. At one point we spotted the gardens’ famous lawn mowing goats and our photographer captured some characteristically embarrassing photos of me exploding in happiness as I greeted them.
We parted ways and walked back to our apartment to take hot showers and warm up. Along the way, we picked up the makings of a perfect picnic lunch chez nous — baguette, a few cheeses (again, from Laurent Dubois; we were getting to know them well by this point), zebra tomatoes and some saucisson. With a cheap and cheerful bottle of rose, it was one of my favourite meals that week!
The day still young and the sun finally shining, we set out to explore a few galleries. Knowing we would have to use our time wisely, we opted to visit the carefully curated Orangerie — whose main feature is Monet’s Nymphéas (water lilies)— a small collection that we could easily cover in an hour or two.
We ventured across the street to the massive Musee D’Orsay, specifically to visit its Gachet Collection (where works by Van Gogh, Cezanne, Degas, Monet, Renoir, Sisley, Pissarro and Caillebotte are housed). Nothing worse than running through a massive gallery to try to see it all in a few hours! I was tickled to see a favourite painting in person (a print hung in the hallway at my childhood home).
Knowing the Pompidou would be open late on a Wednesday evening, we strolled along the Seine in its direction. Along the way, we crossed the Pont des Arts (more infamously known as the Love Locks Bridge), which had sadly begun to collapse just months before our visit, sagging from the weight of a thousand tourists’ locks.
January 2017 update: On subsequent returns, the locks had been cleared from the bridge and replaced with a sturdy Plexiglas barricade, making the fixing of locks near-impossible — in my mind, a smart public infrastructure solution to a tricky problem.
It started to pour hard as we entered the Centre Pompidou (a.k.a. The Beaubourg), which was perfect — to be encased in a radical glass building as the rain beat down on its roof.
We had a blast exploring the 4th and 5th floors, where Europe’s largest modern art gallery is housed — a massive collection of Fauvist, Cubist, Surrealist and Expressionist art plus an impressive photography collection.
We had late dinner reservations close-by at Le Chateaubriand, so we opted to head straight to dinner. As we queued for a pre-dinner drink in the restaurant’s tiny wine bar, lo and behold I looked up to see my food-loving colleague Gabe across the room! We chuckled at the hilarity of finding one-another in the middle of Paris waiting for late-night restaurant reservations, but there we were. We quickly turned our respective tables into a party of three, and settled in for one of our most memorable meals in Paris, in the hands of Inaki Aizpitarte’s genius.
This dinner also featured a favourite dish from 2014 — flash-fried prawns with raspberry powder, which sounds kind of suspect but totally worked. Tiny, salty prawns were quickly fried then dusted with piquant raspberry dust. Paired with Marie Courtin’s delightful Resonance blanc de noirs 100% pinot noir Champagne, they were an unexpectedly awesome bar snack.
The night entering its wee hours, we hopped into a taxi (our first and last of the trip!) back to our apartment, knowing we had a flight to Reykjavik to catch the next morning.
Looking back, the key to such a great Paris visit was to not try to pack it all in, but go with the flow and honour where the day took us. We never felt frenzied by a checklist of places to visit, knowing it just wasn’t possible in a city brimming with innumerable next-things-to-see. Throwing expectations to see it all out the window, we wandered, rested, explored and really acquainted ourselves with the City of Light, ready for our next visit.
Planning Your Trip
Haven in Paris (a great apartment booking resource)
Our airbnb rental in the 4e arrondissement
Our airbnb rental in the 1e arrondissement (Dec. 2016)
($) Laurent Dubois for cheese: give the shop attendant a few characteristics (raw, runny, pungent, blue, goat, etc.) and the quantity of cheeses you’d like, and let them build you a cheese plate. A perfect way to work through so many unfamiliar offerings!
($) Angelina for chocolat chaud
($) L’As du Fallafel
($) Bistrot Paul Bert for classic French bistro fare
($$) Les Bouquinistes
($$) Le Chateaubriand
($$) Cafe des Abattoirs for excellent bistrot food (with an emphasis on expertly-prepared meats) and wonderful, warm service (Dec. 2016)
Nuit Blanche Paris (1st Saturday every October)
Notre Dame Cathedral and be sure to visit the Archaeological Crypt of Paris underneath — the entrance looks like a subway station
Sainte-Chapelle Cathedral for some of the most stunning stained glass work in Paris (and Europe… and the world…) (Dec. 2016)
Versailles (plan for a full day and try to arrive when the gates open)
L’Orangerie (plan 1-2 hours for the entire gallery)
Musee D’Orsay (plan the wings/collections you want to visit ahead of time, unless you have a full day)
The Pompidou (plan for 3-4 hours; open late on Wednesday nights)
Palais Garnier (pay the full admission to tour the opera — a splendid way to spend a morning — don’t miss the Chagall ceiling) (Dec. 2016)
Galeries Lafayette to do a bit of shopping, or just take in the incredible domed ceiling (Dec. 2016)
Le Petit Palais has become my favourite museum in Paris, with an exceptional refined Beaux-Arts collection. The building itself is as impeccable as the contained works (Dec. 2016)
The Paris Christmas Markets are a treat and all over the city if you visit during the holidays — take in some sweets, mulled wine, local crafts and enjoy the stroll (Dec. 2016)
Anne from Prêt à Voyager has one of the best and most comprehensive guides to Paris (where she lives) out there
Patricia Wells’ iconic Food Lovers Guide to Paris, recently updated in 2014
Paris in Four Months — a delightful local resource for seeing Paris