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Paris: Day 1 - Getting Our Bearings (3 May)

Tired and bleary eyed after 22 hours in transit, we landed into Paris’ Charles de Gaulle Airport at 6:10 am. Customs and our baggage collection was seamless and without incident, and we counted our blessings when we waited for no longer than 5 minutes for a taxi to take us into the town centre. 

What started off as a light hearted chat with our local cabbie went south, however, as we discovered that he was heading in the direction of Rue de la Cite de l’Universite, instead of rue de l’Universite, where our hotel was located. Similar names but two completely different parts of Paris. In no time, Peter’s Czech cynicism kicked into gear; he felt that the taxi driver was trying to rip us off by taking us on a longer route. Born with a more forgiving nature, some would argue naive, I had chosen to give our driver the benefit of the doubt. After all, my French had been rusty and it was an easy enough mistake to make. 

With the congestion of Paris’ peak hour intensifying and our exhaustion from the long flight, hostilities escalated between our cabbie and Peter. I began to visualize the driver dumping us by the side of the highway with our luggage, with not a hope in hell of hailing another taxi in the gridlocked traffic into the city. I urged Peter under my breath to cool it, at the very least until the driver got us safely to the hotel. Thankfully, he did. As a sign of goodwill, the driver only charged us for the shorter distance from the airport to our hotel. 

Travel Tip: We experienced a nearly identical mishap in Mexico, teaching us once again that one can’t be too careful with destination names. To avoid any misunderstanding with destination names, it’s always best to show the driver a written address.

Arriving at the Hotel de l’Universite by 8:00 am, we were pleasantly surprised to find that our room was ready. A charming and reasonably priced 3-star hotel in Paris’ Left Bank, the Hotel l’Universite’s rooms were comfortable, clean and not as minuscule as Peter had led me to believe. Their beds were also superb, a ‘must’ for any sleep deprived traveler. The downside of this hotel was its internet connection, which was lousy -- you can’t have everything. I made the decision then and there to give myself a break from the internet for a few days. Our hotel was ideally located in the heart of the Left Bank, nestled amongst bustling cafes, restaurants, art galleries and antique dealers, with St Germain des Pres around the corner and Pont Neuf connecting us to the Right Bank a mere 5 minute walk away. There was much to explore and discover.

After unpacking, washing our faces and brushing our teeth, we were ready to walk Paris’ streets. Today wasn’t the day for sightseeing. Instead, we used it to just get our bearings and to soak up the atmosphere of this magnificent city. Making a beeline towards the Seine, we strolled down Pont Neuf, past the Musee du Louvre and Place de l’Opera. Ducking into a cafe for a quick breakfast, we then headed towards Galleries Lafayette in Boulevard Haussman to see what the Spring sales were doing. We got deliciously lost in the various side streets, gazing at the little boulangeries, fruit markets, delicatessens and boutiques along the way, marveling at the way that the French present their wares with such creativity and style. 

We learnt two things about Paris today. The first is that the myth of Parisians being arrogant is exactly that - a myth. In fact, we found Parisians to be polite and helpful, going out of their way to give us helpful tips and assistance, many times without having to ask for it. 

The second thing we learnt was that for every gracious Parisian that was willing to help us out, a gypsy was ready to rip us off. Paris is rife with them, swarming over every iconic site and preying on unsuspecting tourists. A favorite scam is to approach tourists with what looks like an official petition to sign, after which the tourist is pressured into giving money. As we had seen this scam in operation in Madrid three years prior, we communicated a very firm “no” whenever it looked like we were being approached. 

Another popular scam with the gypsies in Paris is throwing a piece of jewelry (usually a ring) under the feet of approaching tourists, then entering into dialogue with the tourist to try and extract money from them for the piece of jewelry. This happened to us twice, the second time with a young guy openly taunting Peter into confrontation with English expletives and crude gestures after Peter tried to wave him away. We continued to ignore his obnoxious behavior and sped up our walking until we lost him. 

Another precaution is never to leave any valuables or phones on the table at restaurants and cafes, keep wallets in front rather than back pockets, and to hold bags close to the body.

Paris’ Arrondissements:
  • 1st Arrondissement: On the right bank of the river Seine, this area is a largely car free section and includes the area of Les Halles. It’s as good a place for you to start your sightseeing as any. Iconic sites in the 1st include the Louvre (the largest museum/ gallery in the world and home to the Mona Lisa and Venus de Milo), Jardin des Tuleries, Colonne Vendome, Le Palais Royale, Eglise Saint Eustace, Sainte Chapelle, and La Conciergerie.
  • 2nd Arrondisement: This is France’s business center and home of the Bourse (Stock Exchange). This is also the world of Paris journalism and shopping. Iconic sites in the 2nd include Notre Dame des Victoires Cathedral, Ile de la Cite, Place des Victoires.
  • 3rd Arrondissement: This is a quieter part of Paris and includes the ancient Marais neighborhood. There are some great open air markets here, specialty food stores (especially Rue de Bretagne) and a huge covered flea market. Iconic sites include the Enfants Rouges Covered Market (one of the oldest in Europe).
  • 4th Arrondissement: Most of the 4th used to be medieval Paris; it includes the lower Marais neighborhood, which is referred to as “Gay Paris” and includes an active bar scene. Iconic sites include the Centre Georges Pompidou, the “Beaubourg” neighborhood (modern art museum and cultural center), Notre Dame de Paris,Hotel de Ville (city hall), Tour St Jacques, Le Memorial de la Shoah (The Holocaust Memorial), and Maison de Victor Hugo.
  • 5th Arrondissement: Home of the Sorbonne and the Latin Quarter, enjoy a drink on the cafe terrace in one of Europe’s oldest universities before exploring the back streets of the Latin Quarter behind it.
  • 6th Arrondissement: One of my favorite parts of Paris, you’ll find Eglise Saint Germain des Pres, rival iconic cafes Les Deux Magots and Cafe de Flore, and Palais de Luxembourg here. Filled with gorgeous little shops, eateries, art galleries and antique dealers, the narrow streets of the Left Bank are well worth exploring on foot. Just soak up the atmosphere!
  • 7th Arrondissements: The 7th is perhaps the most expensive area to live in in Paris, with dignitaries and embassies populating the area. Here, you’ll also find the Eiffel Tower and Musee Rodin. Expect higher prices at cafes and restaurants.
  • 8th Arrondissement: Filled with historic significance, the 8th is home to the Champs Elysee, which ends at the Arc de Triomphe, and the largest square in Paris called the Place de la Concorde. The Avenue des Champs Elysee is noted as one of the most prestigious shopping boulevards in Paris. You’ll also find one of the most beautiful churches in Paris here, the Eglise de la Madeleine.
  • 18th Arrondissement: I know we’ve skipped quite a few neighborhoods here, but Montmartre is home to the iconic Sacre Coeur basilica, which is best known for its gold mosaic interiors and dramatic terrace that gives you incredible views over Paris. This is where you will find the Moulin Rouge and the red light district along Boulevard Clichy near Place Pigalle.
  • 20th Arrondissement: This area is worth visiting for Pere Lachaise Cemetary alone, with countless famous figures buried here: Jim Morrisson (The Doors), Oscare Wilde, Edith Piaf, Marcel Proust, Frederic Chopin and more. While viewing the Who’s Who of the deceased world, one can marvel at the lavishly designed crypts and tombstones.
Dinner at the Left Bank: A Local Gem

Our first day in Paris overlapped with the last day’s stay of a dear friend of ours, Lou, whose hotel was just up the road from ours in Rue Jacob. She was taking us to dinner at a small restaurant that was a favorite amongst the locals and specialized in ‘cuisine traditionelle’. 

Walking the grey cobblestoned streets, the Left Bank came alive as locals stopped by the various bars and cafes for a little tipple with friends and loved ones after work. Deciding to do the same, we picked a spot and settled back with drinks and animated chit chat as we watched the world go by from our table on the pavement. Life didn’t get better than this.

After finishing our drinks, Lou weaved in and out of the narrow streets towards the restaurant she had chosen for us in rue Christine, with Peter and I in tow. And finally there it sat, Chez Fernand, a rustic eatery that specialized in ‘cuisine traditionelle.’ We noted that tiny rue Christine also happened to be home to the luxurious Hotel Relais Christine and an upmarket Zagat and Michelin rated restaurant named La Rotisserie d’en face by Jacques Cagna. And that’s how it is in the Left Bank. A maze of narrow streets peppered with local gems waiting to be discovered. While the dinner hour was early by Parisian standards, Lou felt that it would be wise to secure a table. With no reservation, she said, the restaurant would be filled with locals in no time. She was right.

Rustic and warm, with the perennial red and white checkered tablecloths neatly draped over square tables, the restaurant had a homey air and spread over the top level facing the street and the lower level, which is where we settled. The cuisine at Chez Fernand was nothing fancy; rather, it featured French classics that the locals clearly couldn’t get enough of, complimented by a selection of regional wines. Within 10 - 15 minutes, there wasn’t a table to spare, and we were the only foreigners. After receiving our meals, I understood this local eatery had such an avid local following. I enjoyed a mouthwatering favorite, the French onion soup while Peter and Lou chose a plate of the plump and sweet asparagus with a vinaigrette dressing for starters. For the main, Lou chose a steak tartare while Peter and I chose the duck breast. Our dishes were lovingly presented, cooked to perfection and reminded us just why the world still swoons over classic French cuisine. 

Chez Fernand: 9 rue Christine, 75006. Ph: 01 43 25 18 55. Open 7 days. 

Posted by Victoria Ugarte on 3rd May, 2012 | Trackbacks
Categories: France

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