Stroll in the 7th Heaven

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. 

Eiffel Tower in Autumn
The “Grotesque” Eiffel Tower

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
  • Thoumieux – a traditional French brasserie, at 79 rue St.-Dominique, online at: http://www.thoumieux.com/

 

Cafe Mabillon – Good at All Hours

When I first started going to Cafe Mabillon, I thought it was actually called “Jour et Nuit” (tr: “Day and Night”) as this was stenciled prominently on the window. This actually meant, “pretty much open round-the-clock” for coffee, pre-dinner drinks, and the occasional Beaujolais Nouveau tasting at 4 a.m. (Note to interested parties: Beaujolais Nouveau tasting in the wee small hours = bad idea after a night already spent enjoying wines, cocktails, and beer all over Paris.)

Mabillon’s a great location for the sport of people watching, perfect for observing a great assortment of folks stroll by: students from the universities in the area, a variety of international tourists, supermodels heading over to the Lipp, merchants from the neighborhood, and Parisians who find themselves looking for a post-movie refreshment after taking in a film at one of the nearby cinemas.

Of course, doing this over a kir always improves people watching. Just remember what I said about the Beaujolais Nouveau.

Located at 164 Blvd. St-Germain in the 6th arrondissement.

Legendary Paris Cafes – La Flore & Deux Magots

Jean-Paul Sartre & Simone de Beauvoir
Jean-Paul Sartre & Simone de Beauvoir

When you think of Paris, you can’t help but think of all the writers and intellectuals who dreamed in, dreamed of, and dreamed up the idea we all have of Paris. If you’re familiar with writers and intellectuals and find yourself in Paris, you also can’t help but think of Sartre and Beauvoir, that iconic, unconventional couple whose life-long personal and intellectual relationship defined multiple eras of Paris, existentialism, and the role of women in modern Western societies– just to name a few of their light contributions to history and modern thought. The fact that they did much of this thinking and writing in cafes just makes them that much more endearing.

Even if you’re not into pursuits of the philosophical variety, you will greatly enjoy two of the most historic cafes in Paris, conveniently located just a block or so away from one another, on the same side of the street.  

The first is Café la Flore. It’s a bit packed and slightly pricey because it’s a legend and absolutely worth it. Have an espresso on the terasse or inside. Of course, anytime’s a good time for a kir. They will pour the wine into the cassis right in front of you at your table, where you can also enjoy a hard-boiled egg, per that rather curious offering at many traditional cafes.  Sit back, and people watch. Write great thoughts in your journal or on some postcards. If it’s a good enough place for Sartre, Beauvoir, Hemingway, and so many more– it might just work to inspire you.

After you’ve finished your coffee or kir, stroll over for another libation at the Deux Magots, a cafe equally as historic, and linked with the Flore through the activities of both cafes’ celebrated patrons. During one of the most epic periods for these two cafes in the period between World War I and World War II, if you were with your wife or hubby at the Flore, you’d have your mistress/mister be next door at the Deux Magots, ducking in and out of both to keep your appointments. Now that’s efficiency! (I’m not suggesting you try that today, but if you feel so inclined, there’s a historic precedent for pulling that off here.) Sometimes, there’s music in front. And, for a very long time, the cafe has awarded the Deux Magots Literary Prize. (If you drink at a cafe with its own literary prize, kind of makes drinking wine in the morning seem a bit less shifty, right?)

Honor your own inner intellectual over a few drinks at  Café la Flore, 172 boulevard St.-Germain, and the Deux Magots, 6 place St.-Germain.  Both in the 6th arrondissement. Online, the Deux Magots has a great Web site that you can peruse before you visit: http://www.lesdeuxmagots.fr/index.php

Pont Neuf – Sunset & Evening Boat Cruise

Pont Neuf and Ile de la Cite
A Great Place to Catch a Boat & Enjoy Wine

Some spots on the world are well-visited because they’re magic. Pont Neuf and the Seine by night are two such places. (If you’re visiting Paris for the first time, the following is a great way to start your trip the first evening you arrive.)

First, buy your tickets for a night-time boat cruise on Vedettes Pont-Neuf. You can do this online (and often get a discount) or you can show up in person. (If it’s a tourist time of year like summer, be sure to get your tickets extra early, as the night-time cruises sell out fast.)

Head down to Pont Neuf before sunset, with a bottle of wine or champagne in hand. Because King Henri IV commissioned Pont Neuf, his statue sits atop the bridge, in front of the stairs that take you down to the boats and park below. Henri IV’s nickname was “Vert Galant,” (Green Gallant)– an allusion to his sexual powers and overall vigor. He was a “notorious romantic,” euphemistically speaking. (Allow that to inspire you for your evening as you see fit.)

Pont Neuf, in spite of its name meaning “new bridge”, is actually the oldest bridge in Paris. The beautifully carved faces seem alive, showcasing an exquisite range of expression. When commissioned over four centuries ago, the bridge’s architect/designer was asked to showcase government ministers and those popular with the court. In a fit of artistic pique that can still induce chuckles across the ages, a few condemned people and murderers were thrown into the gallery of faces. As is common, it’s hard to sort out the criminals from the statesmen.   

After studying a few of the bridge’s faces, stroll down with your vino to the tip of the Ile de la Cite, the island that really started the whole Paris thing way back before Romans, Franks, and the rest.  Sit back and relax while watching Paris go by, and you may learn one of the reasons why that song’s called “La Vie en Rose.” (The sky can turn an amazing pink, and this vantage point is perfect for getting a great vista of a Parisian sunset.)

Once the sun slips below the horizon, head over to Vedettes Pont-Neuf and board your boat. The French are masters at illuminating their public buildings and bridges. Paris, a city so beautiful by day, is 1000x more beautiful by night from the water that is its heart.

For boat tickets, cruise over to http://www.vedettesdupontneuf.com/

Best Fondue & Lively Atmosphere in Montmartre

Though often full of tourists of all stripes, the Refuge de Fondues still draws its fair share of French, and it is the French who are, in fact, the folks who took me here in the first place.

It’s popular with most everyone who visits, as the Refuge is an awesome and funny place. You will surely strike up conversation with someone next to you as, quite frankly, it is so packed, you have no choice. The proprietors also do what they can to keep the conversation and good times rolling. (Such as asking 10 people to stand up and move down one seat to accomodate a few other visitors, all while happily passing hot oil and molten cheese briskly around the room.) 

It’s only about 18 Euros for the entire menu which includes a kir to start, lots of good little appetizers, beef or cheese fondue (which is very very good hence the popularity), followed by your choice of cheese or fruit salad for dessert (though you can have other desserts) AND (why this is a supremely funny place) a baby bottle—yes—baby bottle full of white or red wine. Even if you don’t drink, you will walk out laughing. I have brought everyone who has ever visited me in Paris– of all ages– and they have all loved it. (There’s something very special about watching your parents drink wine from a glass baby bottle, which cannot be explained in mere words.)

If you have to wait to get a table or even if you don’t, go to the bar right next door and have a pre-dinner drink (“apero”). The cute little bar is a pleasant Montmartre haunt, typical of the many small, convivial bars that you can find throughout the neighborhood.

Get your cheese on at the Refuge de Fondues in the 18th, 17 rue des Trois-Freres (between rue Yves le Tac and rue la Vieuville), Metro: Abbesses or Anvers. You must make a reservation: 01.42.55.22.65.

Cafe du Marche – Classic Cafe

Cafe dy Marche on rue Cler
Our table, before the kirs came

When you want a kir and some free sausage snacks while standing at a typical neighborhood bar, you should head directly to Cafe du Marche in the 7th.

Same goes for a coffee on a small terrace while watching the hustle and bustle of a real working market street.  

Same goes for great, reasonably priced food. From succulent steak frites to interesting salads (try the delicious Caesar, which is actually not an American Caeser at all, but more of an East Indian style Cobb salad), Cafe du Marche offers something for everyone at great prices with great rue Cler ambiance (particularly people-watching opportunities).  The daily specials are traditional French fare. When they have the duck confit, it’s exceptional, and only outshined by the great potatoes that accompany it.

I’ve said “great” way too much about Cafe du Marche, but since I’ve been going here for more than 12 years and sending happy friends in that direction for the same amount of time, overuse of “great” is deserved.

Stop by when you’re in the neighborhood. Cafe du Marche, in the 7th arrondissement at 38 rue Cler.