Bonjour from Paris – Les Grands Avenues
Excuse me for a moment while I dab on Chanel No. 5 and loop a cashmere scarf around my neck à la Franċaise. French women wear perfume and when it comes to scarves they clearly elevated scarves-tying technique to a serious art form. Perfume fragrances waft towards you, sometime gently seducing, other times boldly announcing their presence. It’s a personal thing. And scarves, they are everywhere, in shops, on the metro, on the streets and in the restaurants. They are beautifully tied, knotted, draped, bunched or thrown around their shoulders, utterly stylish and somehow unique however they wear them. How do they do it? It must be in their genes, or at least a national sport.
We arrived in La Belle France the other day and settled into a two story cottage in Ile de France, situated about half hour by train from Paris. The cottage is dreamy, with blue-green wooden shutters covering the floor to ceiling windows and French doors opening to a back yard on a pond. It has two bedrooms, two bathrooms, living and dining rooms and a small kitchen. The cream coloured stone floors cover the main level, the main bathroom has an oversize French tub I can sink in and the sinks are oversized and white. The bed is stacked with huge square feather pillows that make you want to stay in bed indefinitely. This is where we stay for the next 10 days or so until we move into the Paris house we will call home for about a month.
Today is our first full day in France, and of course we were headed to Paris, where else? If you know me you’d know I’d rather have a driver pick me up at my Chateau and drop me off on the Champs Elysées. Nice dream, but this time the transportation had to be the RER French metro. We were assured that it would be convenient and easy and we’ll be in Paris in no time.
I have been to Paris a number of times but have never taken the metro before. Just looking at those steep stairs leading to the depth of the earth didn’t quite appeal to me and I have always opted for a taxi, or walking when possible. This time taxi was out of the question and we didn’t want to drive in Paris either, so no rental car. That left the train option and we decided to give it a try.
After a quick bus ride to the train station, we picked up tickets for the train going to Charles de Gaul Etoile at the Arc de Triomphe (14 Euros for 2). A long descent down the stairs into the train station and before you know it, we are on the train heading for Paris. So far so good. We sat on the upper level enjoying the passing villages between train station stops and watched the passengers, all walks of life (umm, kind of), each busy with their iPhones, fingers tapping the keys in French:). Technology is universal, the great equalizer.
About three train stops before Paris the driver/engineer announced that there is an accident ahead and we cannot leave the station until it is cleared, perhaps a thirty minutes delay. This threw wrench into the idyllic situation. We sat on the train for about half an hour before the train begun to move after announcing something in French that with my limited French I could not understand. One of the passengers, a friendly guy, explained to us that RER “A” is being temporarily shut for repairs and everyone is to get off the train at the next stop. C’est ne pas possible. How are we to get to Paris? He explained that we will have to board another train, get off at a certain station and change trains there to another one that will take us to our destination.
I won’t bore you with more details of being swept in a river of passengers up the narrow staircase to ground level. I’ll pretend that never happened. The French however, are friendly and helpful and on each train someone was available to show us where to go and even walk us to the right terminal so we don’t get lost. A little French, a little English, a lot of hand gestures and as my husband likes to call it “body language”, we got on the right train and made it to the city of lights.
Paris is gorgeous with wide, symmetrical avenues and beautifully elegant architecture. Much of this can be credited to Georges-Eugène Haussmann, a true renaissance man (lawyer, architect, musician and urban planner) who was appointed by Napoleon III in the mid 1800’s to carry out a massive redesign of the city. Paris has been growing since the middle ages street by narrow street into a congested and chaotic city with mazes of medieval districts that were becoming inaccessible and difficult to service. Haussmann designed wide, straight and tree lined avenues that simplified the mass of narrow street system and made the city accessible and able to accommodate the growth it was experiencing at the time. He created the geometrical, symmetrical aesthetics that we see in Paris today. You can always tell a Haussmannian aesthetics: wide, tree lined, geometrical avenues and symmetrical architecture facade: five stories neoclassical structures built from large stones, with ornate balconies on the lower floors, plain middle floors and a long balcony running along the top front facade. You see these everywhere in Paris and in my opinion they are gorgeous buildings. Haussman completely transformed Paris over a period of 20 years before he was forced by his critics to resign. His impact is best seen from the top of the Arc de Triumph, being the center from which 12 wide avenues radiate like spokes on a wheel. It’s worth climbing the 284 steps spiral staircase to view Paris from its 50 meters high rooftop (or you can take an elevator almost to the top).
I like to start my visit to Paris at the Arc de Triomphe. I like rituals, and one of my Paris rituals is to walk from the Arc de Triomphe along the gorgeous Avenue Champs Elysées all the way to the Place Concorde and the Grand Palais. Most travel advisors look down on the Champs Elysees as tourist ridden and cliché. Although I understand their sentiment, I respectfully disagree. Champs Elysées is the grandest avenue of them all and I can overlook the masses of tourists crowding the sidewalks and the McCafe in the middle. I see beyond these and love the grand buildings, wide lanes, charming side streets and the two impressive, historical monuments framing the avenue on each end, linking past and present with dignified weariness as if they have seen it all, twice. The stories that these noble structures could tell. The Place Concord, the largest square in Paris, is the site where Marie Antoinette was guillotined, along many others.
It’s a long walk from end to end (about 2K), and I have my ritual stops in between. You want to hear about them? At 75 Avenue Champs Elysée I stop at the historical Ladurée, a Parisian institution since 1862. Ladurée started as a tea importer and sweets manufacturer and later became known for their macaroon with ganache in the middle. It sounds simple but take my word for it, they are divine. They opened their restaurant and patisserie shop (to die for) on the Champs Elysées in 1977. You can’t miss it, it is painted green and now has Christmas lights all around the outside. A Ladurée macaroon costs 2 Euros and according to the Ladurée family, makes for the ultimate affordable luxury. I couldn’t agree more, but don’t ignore the rest of their patisseries, I have never seen such things of beauty and my head was spinning when I was standing in line to buy a sampling to take home.
We stopped at Ladurée for tea, sugared brioche and a sampling of macaroons. The restaurant is spread out on two levels with several smaller rooms set for dining upstairs. It feels like old elegance with beautiful polished wood, fresh flowers, linen and gorgeous decor. We were led to the front room on the ground floor near the avenue. Some of the tables were set with white linen and some were bare wood, without a tablecloth. We were led to a bare table, a situation that I usually resent. I like table cloth in restaurants. Soon a couple of beautifully elegant French women were seated nearby at a table with linen. When I inquired about the difference I was advised that the linen covered tables are reserved for dining. Coffee and tea service is served on bare tables. Interesting, however, annoying. I didn’t let that interfere with my fun though. I ordered their house blend tea made up of China and Ceylon tea, orange rind and essence, cinnamon, caramel, blackcurrent, bramble leaves, China rose, rose petals, essence of bergamot, essence of vanilla. It was sweet and savoury and fruity and floral all at once. The sugared brioche was good although I didn’t quite get the “sugared” part, these were large flakes of some sugar, next time I would order the brioche plain. The macaroons were just as I expected, special and sublime. We had a selection of macaroons: Columbian chocolate, chestnuts, violets and gingerbread. Crispy, creamy, tangy, sweet, melt in your mouth give me more kind of thing. We loved sitting at the table, watching other guests and sipping tea with the macaroons. The staff were friendly and engaged us in conversation without being intrusive. I have heard of less than perfect service there (David L.) but have never experienced it personally. Three professional waiters served our table and they were friendly, discreet and knowledgeable. It was a perfect stop on our ritual walk and it stays on my list for next time. We only stopped for tea but of course you can stop there for lunch. Their daily specials are usually worth trying. The spcial today was hand made ravioli filled with lobster in light cream sauce, and their salads are as fresh and crisp as you can find anywhere. Don’t go on a Sunday unless you are willing to wait 2 hours for a table. Also notice the gorgeous dinnerware, deep, large, beautiful bowls, my eyes were popping trying to take it all in.
A second must stop is at the chic Avenue Montaigne on the east end of Champs Elysées. It’s home to luxury brands, the Hotel Plaza Athénée (I love old world elegance of the Plaza Athenee and the classic cuisine of Alaine Ducasse) and the trendy L’Avenue restaurant on 41 Avenue Montaigne. L’Avenue is not for everyone but fun if you want to splurge, spot celebs and see where the jet set dine, so leave room on your American Express card. You don’t have to lunch at a restaurant though. Lunch on Champs Elysées can be as high end or down to earth as strikes your fancy. You can stop for a baguette sandwich and a salad at Paul Boulangerie at #84 and watch the passers by for an hour. Every bakery along the way sells the most wonderful baguette sandwiches and I sometime take one to go and sit at the edge of the Tuileries garden, Parc Monceau, or a quite park on a side street with my baguette watching the going ons.
Along the way I tasted (and bought) cheese from cheese vendors near the Place Concorde and of course bought paper cones full of just-roasted chestnuts from street vendors at almost every corners this time of year. It’s one of my favourite things about winter, buying roasted chestnuts on the street. There is something organic and romantic about it.
This walk on the Champs Elysées is through the 8th arrondissement of Paris, known for its elegance, haut couture, grand restaurants and historical architecture. Paris has 20 arrendissements (sections or neighbourhoods) radiating from the centre in concentric design. Other arrondissements have their own flavours and I have my plans for visiting most of them in the weeks ahead. Each has its own distinct style, character and atmosphere. Tomorrow we will be in Saint Germaine on a guided food tour of this gorgeous upscale arrondissement on the left bank of the Seine. Can’t wait to taste and tell. Stay tuned.