Winging it through Paris in August

Full of information we had gathered from guidebooks by Rick Steves, Michelin, Frommer’s, Lonely Planet,  and Internet guides like About.com, we landed at Charles DeGaulle Airport without a real itinerary last August.

 

I had spent an academic year in Paris on rue de Fleurus, near where Gertrude Stein lived, years ago when I attended Boston University. I’ve returned once or twice on vacation since then. So everywhere we went I remembered a bit more: how the Louvre once had a cafeteria near the entrance, the Shakespeare & Co. bookstore red couch on which I felt perfectly comfortable reading.

This time, I had booked a couple of tours from the States, just to anchor our trip. But, as always, there was a three-day learning curve as we settled into Hotel de L’Abbaye, 10, rue Cassette, in the heart of the 6eme, the Saint- Germain-des-Prés district.  Galleries and upscale shops pepper the sixth arrondissement, sliced by the rue Bonaparte and the rue Saint Germain.  The Café de Flore and Les Deux Magots, once hangouts for intellectuals like de Beauvoir and Sartre, now attract tourists and fashionistas wanting to breathe in the rarified air—and plunk down quite a few euros per café.

Our cozy “classic” room at L’Abbaye started at about 265 euros a night, including breakfast in a charming inner courtyard where we greeted the other guests over café crèmes every morning. The room was so small we kept bumping into each other, but the window overlooked the patio area below. The hotel also have suites for families.Steves recommends booking the cheapest hotel you can tolerate, and  buying produce and snacks at the local grocery stands to save money, but this time we wanted to be comfortable. Without this home base, we wouldn’t have met Debbie and Brian Horn, Francophiles from Dallas, Texas, who return every couple of years.

Debbie showed up at breakfast loaded down with guidebooks I’d never seen before, and  made lists of places to visit each day. Here are some places she shared with me:  Deyrolle, 46 rue de Bac, a taxidermist mentioned by Adam Gopnik in his book From Paris to the Moon.

Synchronistically, I had also received another recommendation to the store, which has an imposing stuffed giraffe and bears and promises to be a great place to go with kids. Debbie also gets stores to ship her purchases home, and spends time shopping at the Marché de puces (flea markets) around Paris, including a little known one called Marche de Flavin. One of her treasures was a French version of Lincoln Logs designed in castle shapes which she bought for her young sons. The other person who mentioned the Deyrolle taxidermist was my brother-in-law, Neil, who lives near the Jardin des Plantes.  We met him for dinner at Le Vin Sobre, 25 rue Feuillantines.

Fans covered Serge Gainsbourg’s house at 5bis rue de Verneuil in Paris with graffiti. The popular singer died in 1991 and is buried in Montparnasse Cemetery.

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Paris' 2CV tour.

Paris’ 2CV tour.

a neighborhood café, where we had one of the best meals we’ve had so far. The restaurant is “du quartier,” or of the quarter, not Alain Ducasse–that three-star haute cuisine place at Plaza Athenée. My gazpacho came out creamy and cold, the main dishes satisfied and kir and the recommended wine added to our conversation. Neil suggested we could eat well in any corner of Paris by finding such cafes and ordering the “plats du jour.”

I’m not naïve enough to think it’s that easy, but I believe it’s possible to eat very well in Paris without going through all your Euros, if you’re a veteran. The other thing I noticed is that real Parisian women eat a lot. Many of them don’t get fat, but a fair amount could stand to lose a few, like us.  They do walk everywhere! The food is rich and some people make an effort to eat less dessert.  We have yet to sit down at a restaurant table which isn’t already set with wine glasses, however! Since August was the end of the grand vacances here, the term was broadcast repeatedly on television and in the newspapers.  Ads on the Metro urged parents to buy their kids sweaters and other clothes for school since it’s now the rentrée, the return to school and work, which occurred at the end of the month. Our Eiffel Tower tour guide told me that most people get a mandatory five weeks of vacation. In France and much of Europe, people seem to work for the time off. Whereas in the States, we rarely have more than three weeks’ vacation, and we consider finding meaningful work more important than getting time off. Which is better? In August, many restaurants, like the famous Jules Verne with spectacular views from the Eiffel Tower, close down.  Other shops have shortened hours, as we found out when we walked past an antique store  sign reading, ‘August hours: 12 p.m. to 5 p.m.’ Every month in Paris has a different feel to it, so check openings and festivals before you go. Travel agents will often know, or you can go to  the event’s web site.  I find winter in Paris too dreary, but any other season has its pluses. The Paris Museum Pass proved very convenient, since it gets you into 60 museums, including the Arc de Triomphe and other attractions.  A two-day adult  pass is 105 euros, and you don’t have to stand in the museum lines.

Yesterday we took a tour with architecture student Cortine in a1973 open topped-deux-chevaux car, an excellent way to get our bearings in Paris. The tin-can cars were popular when I was in college as a cheap way to get around, but now they’re considered vintage and they’re being refurbished. I would recommend people do this  at the beginning of their trip, not the end—it will help you decide what you want to see. You can book from a selection at www.4-roues-sous1parapluie.com .

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On a narrow street in Chartres, this unexpected lingerie store showed how important fine underwear is to French women, who are said to dress from the inside out. 

We stopped at Serge Gainsborough’s house, which was on a tiny side street and covered with graffiti from fans. His longtime companion, Jane Birkin, left him towards the end of his life, but she was popular during that era (the 60s). Our one and a half hour “unknown Paris” tour took us from Saint-Germain- des- Prés to Hôtel des Invalides ( site of Napoléon’s tomb), the Marais district, past the Centre George Pompidou, the Louvre, the Place de la Concorde, the Champs Élysée, the Palais Royale, Les Halles, and back to our Hotel de l’Abbaye. Nightlife in Paris goes on and on, which is why I love Paris.  We spent $275 a piece for tickets to the Lido, which I loved. Some more blasé types might consider it clichéd, still, the costumes and food definitely entertained us. A night at a cabaret requires a reservation, but otherwise, just take a walk down the street and stop at a local café or club. No shortage of things to do in Paris.

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