‘Tis the season for all sorts of good stuff, and in keeping with that spirit, I plan to showcase some of my favorite Xmas and holiday awesomeness from around the globe for the next 25 days. To start off, nothing says Christmas like miniature nativity scenes (aka “crèche” in French). Europe really goes nuts for these, with everything from the Baby Jesus to working windmills to the village pub (often replete with little mini-village drunks, if you’re really lucky).
One of the best places I’ve been for crèche sighting is the movie-set village of Roquebrune Cap Martin, nestled between Monaco and Menton. The good citizens of Roquebrune go all out for their crèche displays, with hundreds tucked throughout the village and a walking route along which you can discover them all. Think of it as a Baby Jesus treasure hunt. We found them in windows, in plant pots, in light fixtures– some even have special lighting and music just to set the mood.
After your Baby Jesus treasure hunt, don’t miss the exhibition of award-winning crèches. These are complicated, detailed dioramas whose creators have spent lifetimes creating their mini-worlds. I had a nice long chat with an experienced (and passionate) crèche creator on one visit, learning exactly how to create mini-trees that accurately reflect the surrounding region from dried moss and wine corks. I have not tried this at home. Yet.
This year, from December 9 to January 7, more than 300 mini-nativity scenes will be yours to discover all around Roquebrune village. (There may be more figurines in the crèches than village residents, but I’m no census-taker.) Christmas eve, there are plans for a living crèche in addition to the walking route, and interactive activities where you may be able to get creative with your own crèche.
Looking for a good place to stay in the Marais? Check out the Jardins du Marais hotel. Within a short stroll from the lovely Place de Vosges and all the merriment of the Marais, the helpful staff will help you have a great visit to Paris.
Paris hotels can be a bit, well, tricky. A favorite can quickly become a has-been and even a favorite can be too small, too old, or too “European” for some tastes. (Especially American ones.)
As is so important in the strollable City of Light, there’s the hotel’s amazing location. While I have a personal connection to the more sedate 7th, the Marais is a center of many things cultural (the fascinating Carnavalet Museum, the newly refurbed and oh-so-popular Picasso Museum) and definitely some great nights out.
With a groovy lobby area and cool courtyard for convening with fellow travellers, the rooms at the Jardin du Marais are unusually spacious for Parisian hotels. (The room I stayed in even had a mini-kitchen.)
And beyond that, there was the welcome. The staff were beyond helpful. From check-in to baggage dude, everyone went out of their way to give you a hand. In great English and multiple languages too, should you not be proficient when you parlez Francais.
I snagged a deal on Orbitz when I stayed, but the hotel also has special offers when you book direct.
If you’re looking to stay in a place with good rates and some design flair, without a lot of the usual scenesters and tourist sprawl that accompanies those things, check out the Hotel Sublim Eiffel in Paris’ very residential 15th arrondissement. Should you stay out well past your bedtime as often happens in Paris, the rooms are wonderfully dark and quiet for some good do-do action. (NB: “Do-do” is French for “sleep” and is not related to the American “doo-doo,” which does, admittedly, happen in hotel rooms, but let’s not discuss that here.)
On my recommendation, some friends of mine recently stayed at the Sublim. They also loved it, attesting to the hotel’s excellence and value. Of course, immediately after that, the hotel appeared in a major newspaper’s write-up of “hidden gems” among Paris hotels. Hopefully, this won’t ruin the vibe or the value.
Paris’ 7th arrondissement is home to impressive government buildings and embassies, loads of iconic and lesser known monuments, some great museums, really nice architecture, good shopping, and lovely garden spaces. In spite of its hauteur and occasional pretense, the 7th is, in general, a condensed version of all that is wonderful in Paris all in one quarter. If you do all of the following, this will take you an entire day long into a very pleasant evening.
(1) Start your day at Cafe Roussillon, on the corner of rue de Grenelle and rue Cler. Have a coffee and a tartine (bread with some butter and jam) while standing up at the bar, where you’ll pay less than if you sit down. (A rule at all cafes, not just this one.) Sometimes, they’ll have other pastries, depending on what’s available, but a tartine and coffee is a very typical way to start the day.
Next, (2) proceed down the rue de Grenelle toward the gold-domed Invalides, and walk partially around the structure to your left, checking out the buidling’s impressive exterior, passing by the looming cannons, lovely stretches of green grass, and sweet garden areas. Long a military hospital for injured soldiers, Invalides is now better known for one of France’s more famous warriors: Napoleon.
You can visit the inside of Invalides a bit later after you stop and smell the roses (if they’re in bloom), at the (3) Musee Rodin, 79 rue de Varenne. The Musee Rodin has one of the most beautiful gardens in Paris, and even features its own rose variety, the Rodin Rose. Of course, in addition to flowers, the Musee Rodin is a showcase for a sculptor who changed the art form, Auguste Rodin. It only takes an hour or two to visit, and you can get tickets online in advance through the helpful Web site: http://www.musee-rodin.fr/welcome.htm
You won’t be able to miss the French government buildings on (4) rue de Varenne near the Musee Rodin, such as the Hotel Matignon (the official residence of France’s Prime Minister) and France’s Ministry of Agriculture. Occasionally, security will be a bit of a hassle on the rue de Varenne because of the profusion of government offices and embassies in the area. If there are any protests involving angry farmers from the French countryside, you should definitely try to take in the action that will transpirin front of the Ministry of Agriculture– particularly if you get to see the Ministry entrance blockaded with potatoes or manure.
Walking back toward rue Cler around the side of the Invalides you didn’t see on your way over to the Musee Rodin, take in more vantages of the impressive, gold-domed structure. Even if you’re only mildly interested in the military and/or megalomania, (5) Invalides is worth a look inside for its fascinating military museum, and, of course, Napoleon’s tomb. The military musem has an impressive array of weapons from the Middle Ages and a very robust set of archives relating to the Second World War. Different themed exhibits also appear throughout the year. More info in French (with some in English) is available online at: http://www.invalides.org/
After viewing government power, military history, and loveliness for the morning, head back to (6) rue Cler for your lunch. Rue Cler is an amazing market street, with several wonderful shops for buying picnic items. There’s an array of small shops from which to select your perfect picnic lunch: cheeses, fruits and vegetables, breads, sausages, and more are there for the buying. For wine for a picnic (or for any reason), be sure to visit Le Repaire Bacchus, at 29 rue Cler. In addition to a diverse selection of regional French wines, the staff are very helpful, and they give great advice about good wines at every price point. If you don’t travel with a cork screw, they’ll open your picnic bottle for you.
On a picnic weather day, the (7) Champ de Mars is very close by– a perfect grassy spot for a picnic and a nap in the sun between the Eiffel Tower and the Ecole Militaire. “Champ de Mars” means “Field of Mars.” Named for the God of War, military drills were once practiced here. Now, rather than war exercises, you’re now likely to see a free concert put on by Paris’ local government in the summer, or some folks from the neighborhood playing petanque or card games among the gravel alleyways under the trees. (Petanque, or boules, is similar to bocce, except the balls are metal and there are different rules of scoring according to the region in France you’re from.) It’s great fun to watch experienced players play petanque, particularly if they’re older and they’re playing for money– which helps you learn more colorful French phrases than you were probably taught in high school French class.
Of course, if you haven’t done it yet (or, if it has been a while since you did), you should go to the top of the (8) Eiffel Tower once you’re finished with your picnic and nap. Though touristy for sure, it’s popular because it’s a beautiful marvel of engineering with stunning views over Paris.
This opinion wasn’t always shared, however, and the Eiffel Tower was often decried as a monstrosity after it was first constructed for the Universal Exposition (a world’s fair of sorts) by Gustave Eiffel in 1889. (In other parts of Paris, you can also admire Gustave Eiffel’s work at the Bon Marche department store and Credit Lyonnais bank, where he built the metal structures. Across the Pond, he was responsible for the internal structure of the Statue of Liberty.) Only built to last 20 years, the Eiffel Tower proved useful as a radio tower during the war years of the early 20th century so the Eiffel Tower was able to defy its critics to become the landmark we all know and love today. The evening lights are a treat to see from other vantage points all over Paris. For history and visitor info in just about every language of the planet (along with some interactive items for children), take a look at: http://www.tour-eiffel.fr/
By now, you should have worked up a bit of a thirst, so stroll back to rue Cler and head to (9) Cafe du Marche to sit on the terrace (or stand at the bar for a lower price) and enjoy an “apero,” or “aperitif.” This pre-dinner cocktail time is essential in France, and usually consists of ordering a kir or two, along with some nibbly snacks–typically nuts, some sausage, or small cubes of cheese. At Cafe du Marche, this wine accompaniment generally takes the guise of some zesty sausage. (If you’d like to split up your apero time at more than one place, the Roussillon, where you started your day, has some really good apero-snacks as well. Last time I visited the Rousillon, there were some very good, reasonably priced cod fritters which at least 3-4 people could share.)
Should you feel like classic, easy cafe food for dinner, then be sure to stay and dine at the Cafe du Marche, especially if it’s a warm evening and there are abundant people-watching opportunities from the terrace. However, there are numerous options for good fare in the 7th, all within very easy walking distance from rue Cler. A few of my favourites are:
Restaurant Samo – a Korean restaurant that is one of the best places in Paris, or anywhere, to eat
With all the dreary headlines in the news about the West, Islam, Muslims in France, and related topics, it’s easy to focus on the negative aspects of inter-cultural interaction. However, when you visit the Great Mosque of Paris (La Grande Mosquee de Paris), you’ll come away understanding how positive (and relaxing) it can be when great cultures interact, and appreciate the true genius of Islamic art, architecture, and hospitality.
The mosque, located in the 5th arrondissement, is surprising for its immensity and authenticity. An Islamic culture center in Paris’ intellectual heart, the mosque was built after World War I, to thank Islamic members of the French empire who fought to help France be among the winners during the “War to End All Wars.” For more about the mosque’s history and the beautiful art and architecture you find there, this Web site, in French, has lots of info. The great photos speak for themselves even if you don’t speak French: http://mosquee-de-paris.net/
When you visit the mosque, you’ll feel like you left Paris for an enchanted world. The mosque has a really cool minaret to gaze at, a mini-souk where you can buy North African wares, a restaurant where you can eat some of the best couscous and tagines in Paris, along with a tearoom where you can drink mint tea and munch pastries in amazing ambiance. (Just remember, there’s no alcohol served here, so you’ll have to have your cocktails after dinner if you decide to dine here. And it’s worth eating here even sans alcohol. I am somewhat embarrassed to confess that I once tried to order a gin and tonic here. They were very nice about it, but it showed me why I needed to spend more time at the Great Mosque of Paris.)
The mosque also houses one of the best hammams in Paris. For a fairly small fee, you can enjoy the lovely steam rooms and baths. For additional money, you can get that access, plus a body scrub, a massage, and mint tea or dinner afterwards. The massages are worth it.
Bring flip-flops and swimsuit bottoms. It’s not “au naturel,” but perhaps a little less covered up than American or British spas might be, even in gender-separated areas. Use but beware of the strong soap you are given. It stings pretty bad if it gets in your eyes. Like a lot of places with communal bathing in more traditional communities worldwide, it’s girls only on certain days, guys on the other days. I’ve never been on a Saturday, but I’ve been told it’s a miss, as it gets way too crowded. (Like most fun, relaxing things on Saturdays.)
For days of the week for males and females, price lists for treatments at the hammam, menus for the restaurant/tearoom, and contact info for the more commercial side of the mosque, visit them online at: http://www.la-mosquee.com/index.htm
On the ground, the mosque is located at 39 rue St.-Hilaire in the 5th. Metro stops Monge, Jussieu, or Censier are all decent stops, unless you walk over as a part of a nice stroll around the Latin Quarter, part of which is in the 5th.