You’ve been to the Louvre and Notre Dame Cathedral, gazed up at the Eiffel Tower and the Arch of Triumph, taken a sightseeing cruise on the Seine River. Now you want to discover the lesser-known treasures of Paris — which is what we did on our latest visit to this fabulous city. John and I checked out a few old favorites and looked up places we’d never seen. We did our usual endless walking, poking into covered passageways and tiny shops, and when we tired of that we rode the bus.
Everybody loves the Metro subway system, and it’s great for covering distances fast and efficiently, but the city buses give us tours as good as expensive sightseeing buses (without the guide,) a look at the street life, and easy rides to wherever we want to go. Tickets, 1.60 euros, are good on the Metro too.
John and I like to stay in the Latin Quarter, on the Seine’s Left Bank, so we checked in at Hotel St. Jacques, on rue des Ecoles. Rooms cost under 150 euros a night, the location is central, the beds are comfortable, and we had views of Notre Dame and the Pantheon from our windows and tiny balcony. Sometimes rowdy youths made the streets noisy at night — this is a university district, has been since the Middle Ages –so the upper floors (5 and 6) are best for quiet.
If we wanted to spend a bit more, we might stay at Hotel Parc Saint-Séverin, on a small street next to the Saint Severin church. Its uppermost rooms have terraces with views of the church and Paris rooftops. The Hotels Grands Ecoles, also in the 5th arrondisement, is very special, with its large, flower-filled courtyard. It is so popular they don’t take reservations more than three months in advance. We peeked in Hotel du Levant, which offers rooms from 100 to 160 euros for two, and that includes a buffet breakfast. It looks pleasant, a good value.
We bought flowers from the shop across our street and set them on the window ledge in a wine bottle (our make-it-homey ritual) and headed out to the Quai Branly Museum. Visitors to this modern museum near the Eiffel Tower have strong opinions, from “architectural disaster” to “beautifully done.” I think it’s both. The big, blocky building seems unwieldy and out of place, the traffic flow poorly designed, the audioguide less than helpful. But don’t let that keep you away. The Quai Branly’s collection of art and objects from Oceania, Asia and Africa is outstanding, worth several visits to see it all. Elaborate masks and costumes from New Guinea, huge wooden drums, eery carved figures, gorgeous capes and headdresses –it’s all fabulous.
Paris’ museum restaurants have become known for their good food, and the Quai Branly’s is no exception. Our lunch was one of the best of the trip (I’d love to have the recipe for Asiatic Salad, with its crispy noodles in a light lemongrass sauce), and the service on a busy day was fast and friendly. In fact, service in every restaurant was fine. I’m sure the stereotypical snooty French waiter exists, but we have yet to encounter one.
In sharp contrast to the Branly, the Jacquemart-André Museum, near the lovely Parc Monceau, is set in a grand 19th century mansion and filled with Italian and French art from the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Listening to the excellent (and free) audioguide, we went from room to room admiring the Tiepolo fresco, the works by Rembrandt and Van Dyck, the curved double staircase and painted ceilings. When we went in search of lunch, only the long waiting line kept us from the museum café, said to be one of the most beautiful tearooms in Paris. Instead, we sat at an outdoor table (as most of Paris was doing on this sunny day) at Ma Bourgogne, on busy Boulevard Haussmann.
Our post-meal stroll took us to the oldest wine shop in Paris, Caves Auges. You might expect a romantic atmosphere, but these chilly rooms are all business, with hundreds of cases of wine bottles stacked high. We’ll look for cozy tastings elsewhere.
Because we wanted to become more familiar with our own neighborhood, the 5th, we had most meals at nearby restaurants — small places you aren’t likely to find in the Michelin Guide. Les Fàtes Galantes, near the Pantheon, is tiny, with a festive, whimsical atmosphere –bras (yes, women’s underwear) tacked to one wall, photos of jazz musicians, memorabilia — and tasty meals at reasonable prices. A block or so from there, the ChantAirelle, popular with local folk, offers hearty country food typical of France’s Auvergne region, served indoors or in a courtyard in back.
As a break from French cooking, we tried a Thai/Vietnamese restaurant, La Rose de Sommerard and gave it mixed reviews. The soggy fish in a bowl of coconut milk was inedible, but the fried rice was fine, and dishes at other tables looked great. The message: know what you are ordering. The menu showed much variety, and the cost was low.
Our biggest splurge was in the 7th arrondisement, close to the Eiffel Tower. Les Fables de la Fontaine, owned by the noted chef Christian Constant, is truly exceptional. We sat at an outdoor table and feasted on gazpacho with melon, an elegant salad, and grilled cod on pasta. Divine, if pricier than our usual bistro meals. The sky was darkening when we strolled from the restaurant to join the crowds milling happily around the lighted Eiffel Tower, which looked like an immense golden jewel. It’s a festive scene, not to be missed.
Less visited by tourists is the Paris Mosque, an oasis of calm near the Jardins des Plantes, walking distance from our hotel. A courtyard with flowers and splashing fountains and walls tiled in geometric patterns offer a restful space. Jardins des Plantes is a respite, too, with its many paths and a rose garden.
Les Caves Augé
116 Blvd Haussmann
Restaurant Les fàtes galantes
17, rue de l’école Polytechnique
La Rose de Sommerard
16, Rue Du Sommerard
Les Fables de la Fontaine
131 Rue St Dominique