Walks Past – May 2013, Paris

Eglise Saint Sulpice

My birthday is in May, and our anniversary is in April. In 2013, we were going to celebrate both our 25th wedding anniversary and my 50th birthday, so we decided to cash in some airline miles and visit Paris in the spring time. Cliches be damned.

We stayed a a lovely boutique hotel called the Louis II in the St. Germain district on the Left Bank, in the 6th Arrondissement. We had stayed there once before years earlier and had been charmed by it then, and were charmed again upon arrival. We’d let them know it was our anniversary and there were flowers in the room to greet us.

Les Fleurs de Hotel Louis II

Tucked centrally and cozily onto the Rue Saint Sulpice near the cathedral and the Odeon metro station, staffed well, and full of nooks and crannies stuffed with comfy furniture, along with a claustrophobic elevator, it’s a place that we remember fondly.

We arrived on a Thursday morning, jet-lagged and feeling horrible. Since it was early, the concierge suggested a walk about the neighbourhood while our room was made up, and recommended lunch at a little cafe near the St. Germain market. With that stroll, we plunged into Paris for 4 fantastic days of walking, browsing, shopping, wandering, hand-holding, and falling in love in Paris and with Paris.

Day 1 – Saint Sulpice and St. Germain.

We staggered up Rue Saint Sulpice to lunch near Rue de Rennes. Neither my wife nor I can sleep much on airplanes, so having had just a couple of hours on our flight, we were feeling shattered. Nevertheless we were hungry too, and the weather wasn’t bad, so the idea of lunch and getting the feel of the neighbourhood had some appeal. Our meal was lovely – a very Parisienne cafe (I think it was Café du Métro) which provided cheerful bustle, simple wine, delicious food, and strong dark French coffee which went a long way towards raising our spirits. Nevertheless we were glad to find our way back to our hotel, check in, and take a long nap to set ourselves up for dinner, another stroll, and our plans for the next day.

Day 2 – a tour of round inner Paris – the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th Arrondissements.

We set off in the morning and meandered through back streets past the street cleaners down to the Seine, crossing on the Pont Neuf where we stopped for a quick photo op,

Pensive on Pont Neuf

and then kept going, aiming for the area in the 1st Arrondissement known as Les Halles. While packed with older buildings that evoke the history of Paris, it was in spring 2013 a giant building site. That, unfortunately, rather took away the charm, so we kept going past that square to Rue Etienne Marcel and then turned right into the 2nd Arrondissement. We had never toured the Right Bank before, so wandering through the back streets, window-shopping and following our nose generally to the east, we ended up in the Marais neighbourhood, in the 3rd Arrondissement near Place des Vosges.

Somewhere in the 3rd, we found a dress shop where I convinced my wife to buy a perfect summery dress that took me back to warm evenings with her in Greece on our original honeymoon – gorgeous then and gorgeous now. That purchased, we moseyed on until we found a cheerfully busy North African restaurant with an outdoor table to enjoy couscous and wine for lunch. The Marais neighbourhood is packed with shops and restaurants like that, and we made a note to ourselves to spend more time there the next time we are in Paris.

After lunch we kept wandering, by now realizing we were headed into the 4th Arrondissement on a clockwise tour of inner Paris, and landed on Boulevard Henri IV, which we followed towards the Seine. We stopped for a coffee in the City Park at Square Henri Galli, and then crossed the Pont de Sully onto Île Saint-Louis. This somewhat overlooked island neighbour to the larger Île de la Cité is chock-a-block with shops and restaurants including a fantastic place called Chocolat de Neuville Paris.

We took our time navigating and absorbing the feel of the ancient narrow cobbled streets before crossing the Pont Saint-Louis onto Île de la Cité. This island is the home of Notre Dame, the iconic postcard photo op for tourists in Paris.

Feeling contrarian, we skipped the tourist hordes posing for selfies in front of the cathedral, and instead wandered the back streets across the island to cross the Seine again to the Left Bank, and end back at our hotel. It was an idyllic day of sightseeing – a Friday in early May so the tourist invasion wasn’t yet oppressive, yet we basked in sunshine, and the warming weather delivered outdoor cafes, spring flowers, and the best of spring menus.

After such a long day, we had to end with a great meal and we found it at a little family run place somewhere behind the Eglise Saint Sulpice. Unfortunately I don’t think it’s there any more, at least in that form, having been replaced I think by a fancier eatery called Le Bon Saint Pourçain. While it looks lovely based on their website, it’s a bit upscale compared to what I remember. When we visited, there was a dining-with-the-family charm – the parents were behind the bar and the daughter served as front-of-house. We gorged on the specials of the day, drank the wine they recommended, and soaked up the homey atmosphere to end what was actually my birthday with the warm glow of a Paris spring evening.

Day 3 – the 5th, a farmer’s market, the Botanical Gardens, and the Panthéon. We were a bit foot sore, so we thought we’d start off gently and wander down to the farmer’s market at Place Maubert on the Boulevard Saint Germain, a few blocks from our hotel. Exploring that was a visit to the countryside – cheeses and sausage for nibbling, some olives, fresh fruit, and bread for a picnic, and some herbes des Provence to bring home.

From there we walked down to the path along riverside through the Jardin Tino-Rossi and then into the Jardin des Plantes, or the Botanical Gardens. This is a place unto itself within Paris – those green-thumbed will want to spend an entire day there and we nearly did, exploring, sight-seeing, flower-spotting, and picnicking in the sun.

From the Jardin it was uphill towards the Panthéon, a 19th-century neo-classical monument to many of the literary and cultural heroes of France – Voltaire, Rousseau, Dumas, and many others. You inhale history as you wander, with sights on nearly every corner. You also get a lovely view over Paris – it’s easy to forget that Paris has high ground on both the Left and Right Banks overlooking the valley through which the Seine runs, and the from the Panthéon you can keep climbing to the Montparnasse heights. Looking back, we should have done that, but sore feet won out and persuaded us that a nap before dinner was the sensible option.

After such a wonderful sunny day (and a restorative kip), we had to have a wonderful sunny dinner, and we found it at La Mediterranée, a long-time favourite of Paris. This restaurant specializes in Mediterranean seafood, and our meal was a blast from the past, reminding us of the times we had spent in the south of France drinking pastis and eating olives. It was magical, and the walk back to the hotel through the Jardin Luxembourg was equally romantic.

Day 4 – the 5th and 6th Arrondissements and the Musée d’Orsay. By now we were on our last full day in Paris, and we wanted to take in some culture. Our goal was the Musée d’Orsay, of which we’d heard much though never visited. It lived up to the advance billing we’d received as one of the world’s great collections of modern art, housing paintings and sculpture by Matisse, Rodin, Degas, and many others. That day was sunny, actually hot day, and the queue to get in on a Sunday was daunting, but we studied the sculpture in the courtyard as we inched our way in, and once inside we agreed that it was very much worth the wait. The building itself is stunning, having been originally a Belle Epoque rail station – all wrought iron and glass – and now transformed into a stunning setting for the extensive collections. And what art! We were captivated by many pieces, but our favourites were in the gallery devoted to Edgar Degas – his sculptures are so expressive and fluid, the sense of graceful movement is overpowering.

After that sensory overload, we toodled back along the Boulevard Saint Germain, and stopped for a lunch/coffee at one of the most famous cafes in the city, Café de Flore. Sitting outside on a Sunday, people-watching and sipping coffee, is pure Paris. OK, it’s true that Jean-Paul Sartes and Simone de Beauvior have long departed the city, and few people smoke Gauliouse cigarettes any more, but you can still evoke the 1950’s and pretend you’re brooding and deep when in fact you’re in your 50’s and happy to be alive in the sun in the City of Light.

That night, our final one in Paris, called for a memorable send-off. We found it in a charming restaurant near the Cathedral Saint Sulpice, which we’d stumbled upon in our wanderings a couple of days earlier. Looking back now, I can’t remember exactly where it was. What I do recall is the setting – outdoors on a soft May evening with the glow of a heat lamp, a few candles, a bottle of wine, and a perfect ending to our 2nd honeymoon.

The wine we had on our last night in Paris