Long ago, when we first starting to be able to visit Paris, we happily visited the big attractions: the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, the Musée d’Orsay, Notre Dame, the Arc de Triomphe, and the rest. There are so many interesting and attractive things to do and see. We also focused intensely on French food and wine. Each trip was a planned sequence of culinary experiences (a spreadsheet was involved). We would cram a year’s worth of hunger for French culture in a week or two.
How things have changed! Now we look for activities and exhibitions, rather than monuments. That said, we always stop by Notre Dame just because it is so wondrous, even wounded as it is now. More about that coming up.
The catalyst for this trip was the exhibition at the Louvre about Leonardo da Vinci. Once we had bought our timed-tickets for the exhibit, which set the date of our visit, we looked into what else was going on around town. By a nice coincidence, the Paris Opéra Ballet scheduled an evening of performances choreographed by George Balanchine. As you probably know, we enjoy dance performances. We also found a temporary interactive exhibit that looked fun and intriguing, entitled Faire Corps, which means roughly To be one with.
For food and wine, our corollary is to seek out cuisines that are NOT French! We can eat French in our home region. In fact, that’s almost all that we have available nearby. So, going to the big city means the chance to eat Japanese, Korean, Thai, Mexican, Indian and more! Our zone of craving has transformed into non-French food!
Same for wine. We are spoiled by such good and inexpensive wine at home, from the Languedoc Roussillon region. Elsewhere, we are shocked by the prices, and unpracticed at making good selections of other region’s wine without expert help. We certainly don’t eschew wine with dinner; goodness no! But we now enjoy exploring the big city world of cocktails before dinner.
So: Not French food. French wine taking the backseat to hipster and traditional cocktails. What has become of us?
Monday 🕙 Train
We have just finished a long season of train strikes in France.
The end — or respite — of the strike meant that we could take the train to Paris for the Leonardo exhibit in early February. If the train strikes had continued, we would have flown instead. But train travel — when the trains run — is so comfortable and convenient, better for the environment, and takes about the same amount of time as the plane trip (when you count all the transit to and from the airports).
We have learned that we need to have a Plan A, which is the train, and a Plan B, in case the train suddenly doesn’t operate. Our Plan A was a conventional train from Carcassonne to Narbonne, about 45 minutes away, followed by a TGV — Train à Grande Vitesse, or high-speed train — from Narbonne to Paris; that leg takes about 4.5 hours.
On the morning of our trip from Carcassonne to Paris, we arrived at the station a little early, just in case. The departures screen showed our train on time. It was a cool sunny morning, so we waited on the scheduled platform. At about 15 minutes before the expected arrival of the train, a station worker — a grizzled round local fellow — called out to us from across the tracks to say that someone had been hit at a rail crossing in the next town over, in the direction that our train would go. This meant a delay of one or two hours, or more; no one knew yet.
Sigh. Maybe we would need Plan B after all. Fortunately, there was a woman at the ticket counter in the main hall of the station. I say “fortunately” because sometimes there is no one there at all. This woman was very helpful. She even insisted on talking to me in English. She said that SNCF, the train company, was arranging a bus between Carcassonne and Narbonne. Since the delay and bus ride meant we couldn’t make our connection in Narbonne, she booked us on a later TGV. Problem solved. We just needed to wait a little, and we would get into Paris a couple hours later than planned. We didn’t have any appointments, so the time didn’t matter much.
Soon after my session with the woman at the ticket counter, the train that we were going to take came into the station. Everyone disembarked because the train could go no further. We, along with a train’s worth of disrupted passengers, waited in and outside the station for the bus.
To the credit of SNCF, the bus arrived when they said it would. They had a good contingency plan in place for this kind of unforeseen disruption. However, the type of bus that arrived didn’t have dedicated space for large luggage. We had only carry-on size bags for our short Paris excursion. But quite a few of our fellow passengers needed to squeeze into the bus with their big bags. And the bus layout was designed to pack as many people in as possible. My long legs spent the hour-trip folded in various tight configurations.
Our originally scheduled train from Narbonne to Paris left a little after 11 am. We arrived in Narbonne at about noon, and our new TGV to Paris would leave a little after 2. In the spirit of going with the flow and enjoying the flexibility of no necessary schedule, we walked across the street from the station to a pleasant looking restaurant. A bit to our surprise, we found a friendly sunny simple restaurant with good food. The crème brûlée dessert was one of the best I’ve ever enjoyed.
The TGV arrived and departed as scheduled. Our comfortable seats faced each other across a table for four people. To my right, a young man was furiously drawing on an iPad. He was developing designs of roses with eyes in their center, as well as skull faces. Elaborate colorful tattoos covered his drawing arm, next to me. A ring the size of a quarter filled each ear lobe. At one point, I glanced over and noticed what looked like a skin growth on his other hand. Then I realized that it was in the shape of a skull; there was some kind of implant under his skin, about an inch and a half tall. We had to celebrate his commitment to his own iconography. He was very adept at his iPad drawing as well.
At about 30 minutes out of Paris, our fast train slowed down. The usual TGV speed is about 300 kph / 185 mph, so slowing down is relative. The conductor announced that another train on the line had broken down, so our approach to Paris would delay our arrival by about 30 minutes.
We eventually arrived at the Gare de Lyon. A bit longer trip than expected, but we did get there. As each little hiccup arose, we continued to be thankful that the trains were running at all, and that we didn’t need to invoke Plan B.
Such is train travel in France.
🕢 Hotel and Henri
Via Booking.com, we had found a small attractive hotel in a lively neighborhood not far from Notre Dame cathedral: Le Relais Hôtel du Vieux Paris. When we were first looking for a hotel online, it was on the last day of the major SNCF strikes. I couldn’t believe how good the room rates were. At the time, I thought that it was because it would be early February, about as far from peak tourist season as you could get. But I didn’t make the booking that day. The next day, I sat down to book the hotel, and I discovered that the rates had jumped about 50%. This was the morning that the main train unions had announced the stop or suspension of the strikes. How quickly the market reacts.
The rates were still better than high season, and far better than in cities like London and New York. In Paris, you expect small hotel rooms. Even in expensive hotels, you can find remarkably small rooms. So we know what to expect. The main point is that you are in Paris!
Just after making the booking, we received a friendly message from the hotel. Henri introduced himself and offered to help us with restaurant recommendations and reservations. We usually do our own online research for restaurants, and make our own reservations. But Henri seemed so dedicated to helping. I asked him for his recommendation for interesting unusual nice restaurants in the neighborhood of the hotel. He came back with a list of six, one of which looked like it would be fun to try. It was a French restaurant named Le Christine. Though French, the menu showed dishes with international ingredients, especially some Asian ones. More about the restaurant later.
To thank Henri for his help, we brought a bottle one of our favorite red wines from our home area.
We arrived at the hotel a few hours later than planned, at about 8 pm. A smiling middle-aged man in a coat and tie emerged from a little office just off the small reception area. After we identified ourselves, I asked him if he were Henri. He said, “No, I am Charles. Have you seen my name in the hotel reviews?” I stumbled over how to answer. I didn’t recall the name Charles in the reviews. Almost everyone wrote about Henri, about how helpful and pleasant he was. Those glowing comments were part of our choosing this hotel. I felt embarrassed that I hadn’t noticed any comments about Charles. I avoided answering his question, and tried to turn the conversation to our looking forward to staying in the hotel. Charles continued his introduction to the hotel, explaining about WiFi, breakfast, and the room he had for us (“Our most beautiful room!”). He really liked to talk, but was fun and engaging. I forget specifically what he said that triggered something in me, but I realized that this wasn’t really Charles, it was in fact the famous Henri. I blurted out, “Oh, you are really Henri, aren’t you?” He let out a big laugh, and confessed that he was really Henri. He just likes to play a little with the guests.
I pulled out the bottle of wine for him. Big smile and gracious thank you. (You never know who doesn’t drink alcohol, but this is France, so a wine gift is a good one.) We chatted for a while longer. We learned that he came from Lebanon to France when he was a student. He is passionate about history. And pretty passionate about helping the guests of the hotel. After a while, we needed to extricate ourselves from the lively conversation. True to his word, our room was indeed very attractive, and, by Paris standards, not completely tiny.
🕣 Japanese supper
For our first dinner, we had been looking forward to spending the evening with some Parisian friends of ours. Unfortunately, at the last minute, their business kept them out of town, so we needed to postpone. So we had the opportunity to select our first non-French dinner of the trip.
The neighborhood of the hotel is full of cafés, restaurants and bars. During our short stroll, we found at least four small Japanese restaurants, one of which we selected mostly at random.
In the window was a vast illustrated menu of sushi, sashimi, yakitori, tempura, and more.
Our dour Chinese server took our order to the Chinese cooks in the open kitchen. We realized that the vast menu was really a collection of every permutation possible of a few standard ingredients: tuna, shrimp, eel, hamachi, salmon, and avocado. And we are pretty sure that the fish and seafood had been frozen. No matter! There were also beer, wine and sake, so we had a great time.
The server, however, never once smiled.
Tuesday 🕙 ArtFire
One of our practical missions during these few days in Paris was to see examples of electric fireplaces. We are planning to add a small cozy fireplace in our main living space, but we don’t want a real one: too much maintenance and construction. We’ve seen attractive artificial fireplaces in various hotels. Perhaps there is a model that is affordable, available, and authentic-enough. There are plenty of on-line sources; however, we know that photos and videos don’t accurately portray these kinds of simulated fireplaces.
We had scheduled two showroom appointments for this day, at ArtFire and Paris Cheminées. We saw good examples and not-so-good examples. We met fast-talking charismatic salesmen. (I had to say, in French, quite a few times, “Would you please say that again slowly?”) We now have more information, some price proposals, and more design decisions to make. If all goes well, there will be a later electric-fireplace blog post.
🕛 Indian lunch
Lunchtime. What were the options in the neighborhood of the first showroom? Mike said, “How about Indian?” We usually connect Indian with London, but why not in Paris too?
Google / Yelp / The Fork / Apple Maps — one of those — identified a well-named restaurant, Taj Mahal, not far from us.
This time, the Indian server took our order to the Indian cooks. Indian and French customers joined us in the restaurant. Everything was fresh and flavorful, and even a little spicy (which can be hard to get in France).
🕖 Bouillon Julien
We made an exception in our non-French food quest because of a kind of brasserie known for its beautiful Art Nouveau interior, and remarkably good prices. This is the Bouillon Julien.
From the restaurant’s web site:
A ‘bouillon’ is a restaurant first created in the late 19th and early 20th centuries serving traditional French cuisine, in particular a ‘bouillon’ (broth). The particuliarity of the ‘bouillon’ was to serve good quality food at affordable prices. In 1900, nearly two hundred and fifty bouillons could be found in Paris. Today, Julien is one of only a small handful of authentic restaurants of this kind that remain in the French capital.
The founder of the Bouillon Julien, Édouard Fournier, said, “Here, everything is beautiful, delicious and great value.” Indeed, the single tall room of the restaurant is gorgeous.
The building was constructed in 1906 by the French architect Edouard Fournier and was decorated by a number of exceptional artisans working in the Art Nouveau style…. In 2018, The Guild of Saint Luke led by British designer John Whelan were comissioned to renovate Bouillon Julien to its former glory. During the initial research phase, they made a fascinating discovery. A stratigraphy of Julien’s wall paint confirmed that the original wall colour in 1906 was in fact sea green, not tobacco as it had been for decades. Years of indoor smoking had obscured the original colour to the point of being forgotten, since no photographic evidence could prove the contrary.
In typical Parisian restaurant style, our little table, and we, were jammed in next to our fellow diners. But, frankly, that is just part of the experience. The menu offerings are classic comfort food; they are consistent with the restaurant’s original objectives. We found everything tasty, especially considering the low cost. At the same time, it made us think of eating at a hotel event, or on a cruise ship. That is the way, after all, that you can prepare tasty-enough food for many people at low cost. In this case, our goal was to enjoy the beautiful restaurant — which we succeeded in doing — while not spending very much money — which we also succeeded in doing. Dinner, with a bottle of wine, cost about two-thirds of what our Japanese supper had cost. We will definitely go back.
To be continued…