Saturday, June 26, 2010

April in Paris!

I spent the last week of April in Paris with 5 friends. We left New Orleans on a Saturday afternoon. After the long overnight flight and dealing with lost bags for 2 of our travelers at CDG, our pre-arranged van and driver dropped us off at our apartment at 17 Rue de Malte around noon on Sunday. We rented a 3-bedroom, 2-bathroom apartment in the 11th Arrondissement between the Republique and the Bastille. The 11th Arr. has undergone quite a renaissance and accommodations are much cheaper there than in the adjacent Marais area. The apartment was across the street from the Oberkampf Metro stop, on the orange 5 and the olive green 9 lines. It turned out to be a perfect location!

After a good lunch - an open-faced hamburger topped with a fried egg - at the bistro next door, we began our discovery of Paris. Knowing we would be exhausted the first day, I booked a 2-day Les Car Rouges hop on, hop off bus to get us acclimated. We took the Metro to the Cite stop and walked to our bus pick up in front of Notre Dame Cathedral.

What a wise decision to chill out on the upper deck of the red bus our first day. The weather was cool and sunny. The fresh air was welcome after the long flight. Les Car Rouges took us past all the major, and a few off-the-beaten path, sites for a couple of hours. Perfect beginning.

On Monday we all slept in and enjoyed a leisurely breakfast of fresh brewed coffee - so nice to have a full kitchen - and delicious pastries from one of the many patisseries in our neighborhood. Divine almond croissants! Once fortified with caffeine and sugar - we were off to explore.

First stop on the Les Car Rouges - the Tour Eiffel. 5 of us went up to the very top. Wow! What an incredible view! And how nice to not have much of a line. After the top of the tower, we hitched a ride on the red bus again to finish the tour loop. Once the tour was complete, we did a practice run by metro to Gare St. Lazare from our home stop because Carol & Rich were catching a 7 a.m. train from there the next morning to get to their tour of the Normandy Beaches. Once back to our home Metro stop, 4 of us decided to go to the Bastille. Carol & Rich had to wait at the apartment in hopes of hearing from Air France about their lost luggage.

The area around the Bastille was bustling. We walked around the Bastille neighborhood and into the Marais. Lovely neighborhoods. We decided to hunt for a restaurant I read was a "don't miss." We walked and walked ... and walked. After an hour of walking in circles, we found it! And it was closed.

As we were walking back towards the Bastille, a small cafe appealed to us so we went in. Another wise decision. Paris Main D'Or is a Corsican restaurant at 133 rue du Faubourg Saint-Antoine. The food was hearty and delicious. I had the daube in a rich, dark brown gravy served with vegetables and egg noodles. The beef was tender and the brown gravy delectable. Kathy ordered the Corsican lasagna that was layers of chunks of tender beef and cheese in the same dark, rich brown gravy as my daube. Talk about good! We sipped a nice bottle of Corsican red wine and Butch enjoyed a couple of cold Corsican draught beers. We had an early night because we were getting up at o'dark thirty to make our 7:30 train to St. Malo to begin our tour of the Brittany coast including Mt. St. Michel.

Our train to St. Malo left from Gare Montparnasse in Paris. The TGV fast trains in France are on time, comfortable, reasonably priced and, well, FAST! Well in advance, I booked 4 of us on a private tour of the Brittany Coast through Link Paris online. Upon arrival at the St. Malo train station, our driver

Paul was waiting for us and we were off in our 8-person van. Paul, from the Brittany Coast region, was a wealth of information and a delightful man. First stop on the tour was St. Malo, a walled, fortified city on the Atlantic's Brittany Coast. Absolutely gorgeous ancient city situated on a sparsely populated area on the coast known for its extreme tidal surges. We spent about an hour and a half walking atop the wall that rings the entire city.

From St. Malo we drove through beautiful farm land on our way to the next stop - Dinan, a walled Medieval town complete with ramparts, towers and castles. It is full of half timbered buildings dating from the 13th and 14th centuries, with cobbled rambling streets all carefully restored and preserved. Very steep streets! Dinan is a lovely village.

The piece de resistance of the tour was our last stop - Mt. St. Michel. The monastery sits atop a rocky tidal island in Normandy. For more than a thousand years, this rocky islet was the destination of pilgrims beginning in 708 A.D. Today, tourists flock to the abbey. What a breathtakingly beautiful sight it is when driving up! Paul gave us an inside tip to enter the path up to the abbey through a little-known entrance. He advised it was steeper but less crowded and more enjoyable. Paul was right - it was less crowded and it was crazy steep! A gilded statue of St. Michael adorns the top of the abbey spire. The inside of the abbey is immense and full of peaceful cloisters connecting the many rooms. Mt. St. Michel and its bay were inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979. From Mt. St. Michel, Paul drove us to the train station in Rennes with plenty of time to spare before our 7 p.m. fast train back to Paris. We had a wonderful day exploring the Brittany Coast!

After spending a leisurely Wednesday morning at the apartment, we made our way to Versailles. Because we planned to visit several museums and Paris attractions, we bought the 3-day Paris Museum Pass to save money and to avoid lines. Smart move. We moved through the line very quickly at Versailles

and began to meander through the vast and opulent "country" house of kings. Oh, it was good to be king! The palace and chapel are impressive but the most incredible part of Versailles are the vast gardens that go on and on and on. The gardens are dotted with cool little restaurants perfect for enjoying a snack and sipping champagne. Not so bad to be a visitor to Versailles, either. We walked for hours in the gardens and didn't come close to seeing one quarter of the grounds.

Back in Paris after our Versailles excursion, we decided to go to Hemingway's Bar in the Ritz Hotel. Well ... Rich wasn't allowed to walk in the front door of the hotel because he was wearing "jogging pants" according to the doorman. This should have been a sign, folks. Kathy & I were ahead of the gang and were allowed in the lobby. What a walk it was through the hotel lobby where one was blinded from the bling on display! The rest of the group had to walk around to the back of the hotel to enter the bar directly. We took our seats in the very small bar and started reading the drink menu. Holy crap! The cheapest drink was $45 and the Sidecar, for which the bar is famous, was $515!! The special cognac was ... $1,598! Yes, you read that correctly. Needless to say, we laughed our asses off ... and left. That was our "Westbank does the Ritz" episode of the trip.

Butch decided to go back to the apartment to ... wash clothes. The rest of us continued on our adventure and we wanted to see the lights of Paris from Place de Concorde. We walked around the Opera section of town and stumbled upon a lovely Italian restaurant, Romantica Caffe at 7, rue du Chevalier St-Georges. We enjoyed a wonderful meal at this popular and, unbeknownst to us, swanky cafe. Once seated, we noticed several Rolls Royces and Ferarris out front. The food, cocktails, and wine were all impressive and reasonably priced. After dinner we strolled along the street to the Louvre then back to Place de Concorde looking down Champs Elysees and up at the sparkling Eiffel Tower. Definitely a "Wow" moment.

The next day was museum day - the Louvre, Sainte-Chapelle, Les Invalides,

Palais de Justice, and Musee D'Orsay. From Musee D'Orsay, we made our way to the Latin Quarter and the Sorbonne where we enjoyed a great lunch at an outdoor cafe. Then it was on to the Jardin du Luxembourg - gorgeous gardens including a large Medici fountain.

Our last day in Paris was spent in Montmartre - one of my very favorite areas of Paris. We walked through Sacre Coeur, of course. And took in the panoramic view of Paris from atop the Montemarte hill. Chez Eugene was our choice for an outdoor lunch. There I had some of the best lamb chops I've ever had! Tender, juicy, simply seasoned, and perfectly grilled. We rambled around the winding streets of this old artists' quarter then made our way to the Moulin Rouge. Ooh la la! Across the street from the Moulin Rouge we had the most expensive beers we've ever had.

On our last evening together in Paris we went to dinner at a sweet little restaurant near the apartment. La Pharmacie at 22 rue Jean-Pierre Timbaud is a small corner restaurant located in a converted pharmacy. The menu was in French with no English translations - a good sign. I ordered the lapin and was delighted with the dish. Everyone thoroughly enjoyed their meals.

On Saturday morning, Toma left us to return home and the 5 of us caught the TGV fast train to Antibes.