Paris: City of Lights, Sights and Offal Delights.

I’ve heard alot of different things about Paris: it’s beautiful, it’s dirty, it’s romantic, it’s grey, it’s exciting, it’s over-rated. Everybody has an opinion about Paris. No matter how much research you do or how many travel articles you read, you will never know what Paris is truly like unless you go there yourself. So take my report with a grain of fleur de sel, and draw your own conclusions.

We stayed in the Latin Quarter located on the Left Bank, and a 5 minute walk from the Notre Dame Cathedral. The Latin Quarter comes alive at night in the labrynth of streets with every kind of culture represented: Turkish, Lebanese, Chinese, Tibetan, Russian…if you want kebabs, the choices are endless. Sushi? You’ll find it here too. There’s even a Canadian pub with, I’m embarassed to say, potato skins and other bland offerings on the menu. Oh and in case you’re wondering about the French? Mais bien sûr! You can’t walk 10 steps without bumping into a bistro, cafe, patisserie, boulangerie or epicerie. It is Paris, after all.

In August, many locals close up shop to get away from the heat. We were aware of this weird practise, but decided to take a chance and go anyways. Yes, it was hot (31 Celsius) and some establishments were closed for their month long holiday, but in alot of the districts, the city was very much alive and functioning quite well. The only issue we had was on a Sunday when many of the stores close. Some kind of religious thing apparently that we heathens could not comprehend.
We noticed another thing: Parisiennes have a @#*! you attitude that is frightening, yet admirable. They eat what they want when they want, drink at all hours of the day, smoke all the time, wear things that you and I wouldn’t even dream of putting together, and walk around with the confidence of 10 men. They make no apologies and don’t sweat the small stuff. Could that really be the secret? Perhaps I should have a glass of red wine and mull that over.
Speaking of wine: yes, and lots of it, but we were just trying to fit in.
As far as the food goes, we had good experiences, but not great. On the plus side, the meal portions were large. We could’ve split every plate we ordered. The foie gras was spectacular everywhere, but one can not live on foie gras alone or one might soon start waddling like the goose itself. At first we only ordered things we could pronounce but then after becoming more familiar with our phrase book, we got more adventurous. Our phrase book was dog eared on the page that contained animal body parts because I was terrified that I might mistakenly order horse.Steve ordered the andouillette at one place thinking that it must be some sort of small sausage. It was a sausage alright: an intenstinal casing stuffed with intestines. You can draw your own conclusions as to how that tasted because I dont think I want to revisit that part of my brain. For people who plan their days around food, I know we could’ve done better and can only blame our lacklustre dining experiences on poor planning on our part.

Of course we went to the Eiffel Tower, but passed on going up because of the lineups. Besides, we had just completed the 280 steps of the Arc de Triomphe and my knees were starting to seize up. If you can hack it, do it because the view from the top is outstanding. If you want to take it easy, a great way to get to the most popular tourist sites like Napoleon’s tomb, the Louvre, Champs Elysses, etc is to take a hop on, hop off bus. For about 25 Euros, it’s an excellent way to go. It’s good for two days, you can create your own itinerary and your feet will thank you.
We got a great tip from a lady in one of the shops at the Marche aux Puces (biggest flea market in the world, mon Dieux!) who told us about the macarons at Laduree’s sweet shop at Place de Madeleine. Monsieur Laduree, as the story goes, invented these delicate little airy cookies and no other macaron maker (and I’ll swear to this because we had to try everyone else’s afterwards just to compare), can make a macaron like Laduree’s. If you want to know what a cloud from heaven tastes like, you will never know unless you try a macaroon from Laduree’s. Now with that being said, we did hear about Pierre Herme’s macarons after we left Paris and by the sounds of it we missed out. Oh well, guess that just gives us reason to return.
The Louvre: Go! You’ll need 4 days alone just to see everything that the Louvre has to offer. In 3 hours we saw 1/20 of the exhibits. Of course we had to go see Mona…the trick is to get in line early (like 8 am) and then head straight to the Mona Lisa first before the crowd really swells.
The subway (Metro) is an excellent way to get around the city and we took it to Montmartre, home to the infamous Moulin Rouge, Toulouse LaTrec and all sorts of debauchery, as well as the Basilica of Sacré-Cœur, a huge cathedral at the very highest point in the area. It was here on the steps of the church that we sat listening to a busker sing pop songs in Frenglish while we drank cold beer and looked upon the vista of Paris.
Ile St. Louis is a fantastic area full of boutiques and a gelato shop called Berthillion where the lineup is usually a block long. We got lucky and stepped right up to the window, and yes their gelato is as great as they say. We even found a little grocery store that had Canadian cherries in stock. Imagine that! We can’t even get Canadian cherries in Canada in August and here they were in France.
The August holiday signs were more prominent on Ile St. Louis and also in the Jewish quarter in the district called Le Marais where we had life-altering falafel. People were lined up 100 deep, at 3 or 4 competing falafel joints all in one block.
The Best of Paris: Hediards and Farouche gourmet food stores at Place de Madeleine, Laduree’s macarons, Montmartre’s Sacre Coeur, the Marches des Puces, the Louvre and the Latin Quarter, along with the Jewish district and Ile Ste. Louis.
The Worst: the smell of urine. Yes, urine. People piss everywhere…even in corners of the courtyard at the Louvre. The city has tried to counteract this free-flowing problem by installing outdoor toilets, quite fancy looking little huts that once used and vacated, have automatic shower nozzles inside that spray down the units. Great in theory, but over half the ones we found (when we really, really needed them) were out of order. And restaurant staff frown upon people just coming in to use their bathrooms. So, hold it or plan accordingly if you’re out and about. Paris is not a place for the weak of bladder.
Tips:
  1. If you don’t parlez vous Francais, buy a phrase book and use it. Parisiennes will immediately deduce (by your horrific accent) that you are an Anglo, but will appreciate your effort. Things will go much smoother for you if you at least try.
  2. Forget taxis, take the Metro, a “hop on, hop off” bus, or walk.
  3. August definitely means store/restaurant closures in some districts
  4. You will not find North American style breakfasts…pain au chocolat and coffee are the norm, and dont expect anything to be open before 8 am
  5. When you’re in line-ups or walking anywhere touristy, keep a good grip on your wallet and make sure all zippers are done up on your backpacks. In fact, many people wore theirs on the fronts of their bodies…beggars and street urchins are a problem and come in all shapes and sizes
  6. Know the etiquette: always greet people with a “bonjour Monsieur/Madame” and leave with a “merci, au revoir monsieur/madame” when you leave their shops/cafes, etc. along with including “s’il vous plait” when you ask for something.
  7. 4 days is not long enough , and
  8. Don’t sweat the small stuff.

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