Category Archives: France

À Bientôt, l’Europe!

Oh, Paris. You just might be my favorite city in Europe. How anyone could not love the City of Light is beyond me. It just oozes beauty, art and style. I could wander those streets covered in pretty Parisian architecture, and (were it not for the smokers) I could sit outside at those fantastic cafes, watching the black and grey clad locals walk by with their impossibly cute dogs, whilst sipping on Bourgogne and nibbling on some rillettes and cornichons (and macarons to finish, but of course!).

Upon the advice of a handful of friends, we stayed in the Marais (3rd arrondissement) and we really loved it. There are loads of cafes, restaurants and cute boutiques, and there tend to be fewer tourists than some of the other arrondissements. It seemed the shops right near our flat were segregated by block. E.g. we were staying on the luggage and handbag street, nearby was a strip of (high end) cosmetic stores, and then a street of nothing but wholesale jewelry, and so on. I have to say I appreciate that organization.

One of our favorite finds in our little neighborhood was the Marché des Enfants Rouge (supposedly the oldest covered market in the city). It kind of became our go to spot, for quick meals, meats and cheese, and even flowers.

Of course, we had to pay a visit to my dear friend Jen’s old home on Rue des Rosiers, where she lived while studying in Paris. It being the Jewish quarter and our visit coinciding with the Friday afternoon of the Jewish High Holidays, it was sort of dead. And, most important, L’As du Fallafel was closed. So we came back another day to sample this legendary falafel, and we ate it standing outside Jen’s old door. If you want an indication of how much Alan liked his falafel, consider this. A kind Orthodox man came over and wrapped a Tefillin around Alan while we chatted for a bit, and the entire time Alan did not stop eating his food.

Now Paris is the only place we went on this trip that we’d both been to already. But our last visits were something like 15 years ago, when Alan was a college student with mono, and I was a middle schooler focused largely on shopping at Kookai. Thus, on this trip we hit up a number of the popular tourist sights, and we felt a bit better about skipping a few we’d  done previously.

That said, we did some serious exploring this time around. We really felt like (especially with a week-long visit) we were getting to know the city, and able to maneuver our way around. The metro system is remarkably easy to navigate, and super efficient. Of course, those iconic metro entry signs add some beauty to the experience, too.

Of our touristing; first things first: cheesy romantic-ness. We obviously picnicked in front of the Eiffel Tower. (I am a romantic + first time in Paris with my lovah = wine and cheese by the Tour Eiffel). We picked up supplies at the Marché des Enfants Rouge and headed over for a lovely afternoon soaking up the sun. I was dismayed only by the fact that I was outdone by not one, but TWO women (English speaking and likely American) who had our same idea but out cheesed us by wearing berets. The gall.

Oh, and side note: speaking of cheese, we picked up a couple cheeses we’d discovered at dinner the night before: a creamy and stinky Pont-l’Évêque, and a nutty parm-y/cheddar-y Mimolette. I’m really glad Alan didn’t tell me until afterwards, but apparently Mimolette is (or was, or this was all urban legend?) banned by the FDA because mites are used in the cheese making process. I can’t decide if I’m more grossed out about this, or all the weird things we ate in Asia.

Alan was a total sport and indulged me in some even more uber-cheesy Parisian romance (slash a silly tourist trap): we placed a lock on Pont des Arts (the love lock bridge) and threw the key in the River Seine. It is truly insane how many locks are fitted onto that little bridge. And there are entire sections that are clipped and covered with wood so you can’t attach more. I’ve read that they regularly clip the locks as they get put up, and it looks like it must happen often since most of the dated locks had looked like they were from no earlier than August of this year. People go all out, too. Our €2, purchased a half block away from the bridge, standard lock was certainly outdone by some of the personally engraved, heart shaped masterpieces up there.

Of course, we visited a number of the other big sights. After our Eiffel Tower picnic we walked over to L’Arc de Triomphe. Way bigger and more impressive than I remembered. (Kind of a theme with Paris, for me.)

We walked by the Louvre to take the obligatory selfie in front of the pyramid (again, was more impressive and bigger than I recall). While we didn’t really have any intention of going inside the museum, I would have enjoyed taking our time and walking through the Jardin des Tuileries. Unfortunately, we had so-so weather by the time we made it over here.

We did check out the Jardin des Plantes one day, and despite the chilly weather, we enjoyed admiring the flowers and practicing our French by reading informational bits about medicinal plants and herbs. Loving the green spaces in this city.

We visited the Centre Georges Pompidou, though not the museum, just the sixth floor roof with its awesome views of practically all of Paris (Eiffel Tower and Sacré-Cœur included). I learned that this inside out building was designed by the same guy (Renzo Piano) who did the wind tunnel at the Ferrari factory we saw outside Bologna.

And you guys, we pulled it together for our last stop in Europe and we did it. We went to a museum. And we damn near went to two, but the line for the Musée d’Orsay on a free entrance day around noon is a special kind of torture nobody should voluntarily subject themselves to. Anyhow, I’m calling it a success. We had a bit of a stretch there where we couldn’t bear to do museums (ahem, London). But the Rodin Museum captured our attentions long enough for us to get a wee bit of culture. The grounds of this former mansion are lovely. And Rodin’s sculptures certainly don’t make bad lawn ornaments.

We really enjoyed wandering Île Saint-Louis (definitely check it out, no “major” sights per se, but incredibly charming little neighborhood full of tempting fromageries, boulangeries, and boucheries) on our way back from visiting Notre Dame and Sainte-Chapelle.

Alan is officially obsessed with photographing Notre Dame, he couldn’t stop.

Sainte-Chapelle is the somewhat lesser known, but in my opinion more beautiful (at least on the inside) stained glass loaded church. Look at the detail in there.

Alan loved Rue Mouffetard. It’s a gourmand’s paradise, full of your choice of cheese, meat, foie, pâtés, pastries, seafood, rotisserie, chocolate, wine…

One evening we went over to Montmartre and met the parents of Alan’s best friend from law school (his father is from Paris and they have a flat they happened to be visiting at the same time as we were there!). Our lovely hosts walked us around the area, showing us the last vineyard in Paris (!): Clos Montmartre (who knew?), the adorable and buzzing square atop the hill, and the Sacré-Cœur all lit up at night with the amazing views down below. We shared a fantastic dinner (and wine!) at Le Coq Rico.

Those who know me well know I am borderline obsessed with macarons. So naturally I sampled several. On Champs-Élysées we picked up a handful of Pierre Hermé’s treats. Alan really enjoyed the olive oil vanilla (but my favorite ever just might be a classic vanilla bean flavor, so I was not as into this one). The jasmine flavor, however, was out of this world. I was lucky to grab a few from Ladurée in Orly Airport on our way out. Their vanilla and rose were the And you know I jumped on the opportunity to try a macaron ice cream sandwich (oh yes). That bad boy from Berthillon was a salted butter caramel ice cream surrounded by big almond macaron cookies. And it was sinful (if not a bit cloying).

We’re not much of shoppers on this trip given the whole one suitcase for months at a time thing, but we did explore a bit of the wares on offer. We wandered Champs-Élysées after walking to L’Arc de Triomphe. Though to be honest, we didn’t even really window-shop anything more than the macarons. It’s a pretty, wide boulevard and of course there are nice shops, but we found it quite touristy (e.g. there was a line out to the street for Häagen-Dazs, what?).

But I did very much enjoy going to Saint-Ouen for the Marché Aux Puces, supposedly the world’s largest flea market. If I had a home to ship stuff to, or current income, I would probably have purchased some furniture. There are some beautiful pieces there. We also found it très Parisian and très adorable that all the proprietors were eating their lunch with baguette and wine all fancy at their tables, with real silverware. How civilized.

All in all, Paris was a fantastic way to wrap up our nearly three months in Europe. We’re off to Africa for the next and final continent on this crazy trip of ours!

Practical Info

Paris lives up to its hype of being a beautiful and romantic city. The lovely buildings with wrought iron balconies covered in flowers abound. As do the ample squares, cobblestone streets and peaceful gardens. The Seine is most attractive, adorned by several bridges and some quaint islands.

Generally speaking, I was a little disappointed with the food vs. very high expectations. And the wine was pricier than I expected. I could not but help compare each of these categories to Italy, which I felt clearly had the upper hand in terms of value. I was pleasantly surprised by the friendliness of the locals and ease of communication and transport. Many assert the French can seem snooty or unfriendly, and we did not experience this at all. Perhaps because we can speak some French and made the effort, nearly everyone we interacted with was kind and willing to speak English, especially if theirs was better than our French.

We bought a SIM card at Orange (SFR was out) for €40 which includes 2 hours of international calls, 1GB data, etc. This was much pricier than we’re used to, but we needed it. In the unlikely event you need to ship something, the folks we interacted with at two post offices were exceptionally friendly and helpful. It costs €50 to ship 7kg in a smallish box to the US.

Transportation: We arrived to Charles de Gaulle Airport (CDG) on a flight from Prague. We took the RER B train (€9.75 each, self-service machines with English) to Châtelet – Les Halles and walked from there to our apartment. Paris is quite large, and the public transit system is good. You can buy a carnet of 10 metro tickets for €13.70 (basically break even at 8 rides), and you can divvy up the tickets however you want (unlike, say, London’s Oyster Card where each person needs his own card).

Velib’ is the public bike sharing program. Autolib’ is an electric car sharing service.

We departed on a flight from Orly Airport to Johannesburg via London Heathrow. Taxis G7 has an English language number and they picked us up on time. It cost ~€40 and took half an hour from our apartment to Orly Airport.

Accommodation: We stayed at an Airbnb place on Rue des Vertus in the 3rd arrondissement, in/next to Le Marais. This is a great area if you want to be walking distance to cafes, boutiques, bars, etc. and don’t mind a touch of grittiness. Proximity to metro stations is important. I am by no means an expert on Paris and museums are not a big priority for us, but from what I’ve seen I’d probably stay in the 3rd, 4th, 5th or 6th.

Food and Drinks: Dinner at Bistrot Paul Bert (not to be confused with his other establishments) was very good. The fixed price menu is available in English and costs €38. It was getting late as we finished, so for my cheese course the waiter dropped off enough for five people and said I should take whatever I want. This is when we learned about Mimolette, which looks like (orange) cheddar and to me tasted sort of like a cheddar mixed with a Parmesan, as it is somewhat nutty and tangy. I’m not sure the current status, but I read that it’s banned in the US because it is deliberately exposed to mites. A pity, if true.

Le Coq Rico is a renowned volaille (poultry) restaurant in the 18th. We had a great meal there with the Streiffs. N.B. they are opening a branch in NY at Park Ave and 20th. The €21 two-course lunch at L’AOC was solid value. Our meal was good and the service was excellent.

Few even argue that L’As du Fallafel is not the best falafel in Paris. It is delicious and hearty at €6; there is a separate line for take away; get the hot sauce, it’s not very spicy. Also on Rue des Rosiers are a handful of competitors.

Marché des Enfants Rouges is a small covered market with meats, cheeses, fish, veggies, flowers, etc. and also stalls selling prepared food like Moroccan, Italian, Lebanese, Japanese…It is cool. Caractère de Cochon is a nearby shrine to the pig. Jean-Paul Gardil looked like a great butcher on Rue Saint-Louis en l’Île.

Ice cream at Berthillon on the same street was great and reasonably priced. I am not a big macaron fan, but Jenni, a self-proclaimed macaron aficionado, assures that those from Pierre Hermé are superb. Ditto those from Ladurée, which I’m pretty sure has some NY locations.

Rue Mouffetard (in the 5th) is a gourmand’s delight. There are several shops with cheese, meat, foie gras, pâtés, pastries, seafood, rotisserie, chocolate, wine, etc. The young man at wine shop Le Repaire de Bacchus was very helpful and steered us nicely to a Pic Saint-Loup.

We did not visit any of these in Montmartre, but Chez Plumeau is in a quieter part just off Place du Tertre; Le Tire Bouchon is a piano bar; Au Lapin Agile is a cabaret bar.

Though Paris is rightly famous for its sidewalk cafes, beware that you’ll likely be enveloped in cigarette smoke when you sit outside. I read that one should order steak “a point” for medium rare, which might be to the rare side given French preferences. Saignant is rare (at least for beef). If you want food to take away, the word is “emporter.”

Activities: There are endless famous museums, monuments, shopping areas, markets, gardens, specialty stores, etc. Most of the major museums are free on the first Sunday of each month, and some offer discounted rates for late visits on other days. Even if you don’t enter the Louvre, it’s worth passing by for the impressive building and iconic glass pyramid.

The Musée Rodin holds many pieces within its 18th century mansion and also its spacious and peaceful gardens. Musée d’Orsay eluded me yet again. The Eiffel Tower is an obligatory stop, at least for first-timers. We picnicked in a grassy area east of the Tower but did not ascend to any of the “floors.”

The Marché aux Puces de Saint-Ouen is generally considered the largest flea market in the world. TimeOut has a good description here.

Montmartre is like a cobblestone-street village atop a hill (butte) overlooking the city. Its most famous attraction is the Basilica of Sacré-Cœur; its central square the Place du Tertre. We visited at night and it was loaded with tourists and souvenir shops, but it’s easy to see the appeal. Once you get away from Place du Tertre, it is a lot calmer. Clos Montmartre is the only working vineyard in Paris, and each year there is a harvest festival (always early October?).

Île Saint-Louis is a charming place for a stroll. A friend did a Fat Tire bike tour and liked it. We wanted to do a cruise on Canal Saint-Martin, but the weather did not cooperate our last couple days. We did not go this time, but Versailles makes a lovely day trip.

October 2-9, 2014 (Thursday-Thursday)

French Coast

So remember my oldest friend, the one who left us for Londontown and an awesome Irishman? Well, she and said Irishman tied the knot up in a chateau on the hills overlooking Cassis, France. And so Alan and I took a little road trip from Italy to France to see it happen!

Driving from Italy to France was an experience in its own right. The first road we needed to take out of Vernazza was closed due to the floods (three years ago), so we enlisted the help of a friendly Italian man to help us reroute. While his advice sounded on point, we soon found ourselves going up and down the cliffsides and taking narrow, winding roads through what was seemingly the least direct way out of Cinque Terre. At least it was stunningly beautiful. Once we finally found those autostrades, we were welcomed by some of the most insane tolls I have ever heard of. I had flashbacks to my shock at the tolls in New York, and I suddenly felt incredibly embarrassed to have ever complained about those. Europeans, you have it so bad when it comes to driving. We had one toll that was €26! That’s nearly $35! And in France there was one stretch where we had to stop (on the same highway) every 15 minutes to pay an exact change toll ranging from €2 to €14! Who knew we’d need to figure in hundreds of dollars extra for gas (it’s basically the equivalent of $9 a gallon) and tolls when we chose the rental car over the trains!

Alas, we perhaps made up for the budget hit by our seemingly impossible feat of visiting the country of Monaco and paying for NOTHING. The view of the country as you drive in is quite impressive. The huge yachts and the shining buildings stand in stark contrast to the stunning mountains behind. Down in the thick of it, we parked near the Casino, which was unfortunately closed when we arrived. What’s up with that by the way? Always thought casinos were 24 hours. So we took the obligatory Monte Carlo selfie and basically bounced. Though we first walked quickly through town to ogle the fancy stores, fancier cars, and even fancier yachts, and of course the ladies walking with their noses held high. So, if all the tolls we paid are going to France’s revenue and not Monaco’s, then Monaco wins the award of cheapest country we’ve ever visited! 😉

After a beautiful drive near the coast of the French Riviera we finally made it to our destination. The main town of Cassis is super cute, with a harbor full of boats and cafes full of people sipping rosé. We stayed at a hotel just a few minutes walk from this area, with a lovely view of a small beach just across the street. I’m embarrassed to say that I never even went in the ocean, but in my defense, we did not much luck out with the weather and it was exceptionally choppy. (Some on and off epic thunderstorms, which thankfully held off during the welcome party and the actual wedding, all outdoors! Though it did mean that the water was too rough for the boat cruise to go out, and I’m partially blaming that for the fact that we went to Cassis and never saw the Calanques! So embarrassing, but we place the rest of the blame on the rosé and champagne).

The wedding was held in a beautiful old chateau up the hill overlooking the town of Cassis. Not a bad view, eh? The bride was also stunning (shocker, I know), and it’s hard to say which was more beautiful. We had a great time dancing and clinking our champagne glasses and reuniting with friends and Kait’s family (since I practically lived at her house while I was in middle school!), and by 3:30 am I found myself in the pool (in my dress) alongside my newly married friend. Congratulations Mr. and Mrs. C!

Of the restaurants and attractions in Cassis, we can’t opine much since (as alluded to above) we spent much of our time at wedding related festivities or recovering from them. Most of our meals were taken at the panini shop next door to our hotel (and by our last day, the guy kind of knew us and maybe took a liking to us despite my very rusty French!?). The trois fromages panini was budget friendly and tasty with that Roquefort cheese! We had a few meals in the downtown area, but I would be hard pressed to remember the names. But do beware if you come to Cassis that many locals do not speak English and it is not always easy to communicate (even with my nearly ten years of studying the French language. Quel dommage)!

By the end of our visit to the French Riviera we were not operating at 100%, or as the groom would put it, we were paid a visit by the “bogeyman.” So it should not come as a surprise to Jaimie or Kait that we have now made a tradition of getting some post-wedding McNuggets, or, in this case, Le McNuggets. All your stories inspired us Matt & Jaim!

P.S. we’re not much good at photography when busy celebrating our friends’ weddings, so apologies for the few (and mostly low-quality iPhone) photos in this post!

Practical Info 

Cassis is a small town in the south of France, east of Marseilles in the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region. It is famous for the Calanques, which are steep-walled inlets on the Mediterranean. And also for rosé and white wine.

Transportation: We drove from Vernazza (Cinque Terre) and stopped in Monaco on the way. In Monaco, we parked at the public lot at the Casino de Monte-Carlo (first hour is free) and walked around a little. In Cassis, we parked at the hotel for €15/day. Right next door was a public lot offering hourly rates and charging more for 24 hour parking. It was a 5-10 minute walk from our hotel into town. Getting around on foot seemed pretty easy, especially if you take a boat tour (from the harbor) of the Calanques vs. walking to see them. Some friends either took a taxi or train to Cassis from Marseilles and did not have a car. We departed by car for Bellagio (Lake Como), opting for the inland route (through Briancon, Turin, Milan, etc.) since we had taken the coastal route from Cinque Terre. The inland route may be slightly longer (and more hilly and windy), but it was different and there is some great mountain scenery.

Accommodation: We stayed at Hotel de la Plage Mahogany, across the street from a small rocky beach and a 5-10 minute walk into the town/harbor. Our room was not that big but perfectly fine, and it had a balcony and gorgeous view of the ocean and cliffs across the way. Our friends stayed at Les Roches Blanches, which is a tad further from town but on the ocean with a cliffside infinity pool.

Food and Drinks: There are tons of restaurants lining the harbor. Seafood features prominently, and bouillabaisse is a specialty of the region. Closer to our hotel there was a panini stand we frequented, and the bacon cheeseburger with fries at Same Same Beach was hearty if quite pricy at €20. Local white wine and rosé are abundant.

Activities: We were in wedding mode, which combined with spotty weather meant minimal tourist activities. Aside from relaxing with walks around town or at the beach, I think the most popular activity must be visiting the Calanques. There are walking routes from the west side of town, or you can take a boat cruise departing from the town harbor. There are other scenic drives/walks in the area, and there are wineries that I assume one may visit.

We didn’t do much in Monaco as we had a long drive, but a few things that sounded interesting are visiting the Casino de Monte-Carlo (check dress code), Musée Océanographique, the Jardin Exotique district and the Palais Princier.

September 16-20, 2014 (Tuesday-Saturday)