Paris makes a marvelous five day getaway. If combined with a night flight and a Monday holiday, it really is a mini-vacation with a minimum of time away from the office. I was thrilled to hop over to Paris on a spur-of-the-moment plan and get a “Europe infusion” over a beautiful autumn weekend.
I was really hoping for a relaxed, romantic, casual experience of Paris without any agenda. I had no mission other than to get away. My husband and I stayed at the elegantly modern, stylish Hotel Montalembert in the heart of the St. Germain des Pres district. I was thrilled to discover the gallery-laden alleyways and cul de sacs of St. Germain des Pres. Just walking to a neighborhood bistro at night became a window-shopping adventure in discovering antiques, gazing at porcelains, or deciphering iconography in medieval tapestry. Thursday nights, we discovered, are champagne open houses at many galleries into which we accepted verbal invitations to join, qualifying either by dinner attire or soggy-looking umbrellas. In contrast to the antiquities of the tiny rues and alleyways, shops along the thoroughfare Boulevard St. Germain seduced us with colorful state-of-the-art contemporary furniture, kitchen, and accessory design shops and studios.
Having a weekend with no agenda in mind but what strikes one’s fancy, we were free to explore outside or choose to just cozy up in our Hotel Montalembert suite. Grace Leo-Andrieu’s acute blend of modern furniture design offset by sumptuous materials and fabrics created warmth throughout. The added hospitality of a gracious and friendly staff, outgoing Front Desk, and responsive Room Service and Housekeeping staff made the Montalembert a welcoming and nurturing hotel experience. What the hotel guides forget to mention about this wonderful neighborhood is that a gothic design Catholic church is right around the corner from the Montalembert. The mid-morning carillon ringing through opened French windows while I sat in my plush bathrobe and drank café au lait was just about nirvana.
Plain Old Tourists
As intended, we just wanted to be a plain old tourists with no agenda, no business to accomplish, no kids to expose to culture. So off we went to do embarrassingly touristy things we’d never done before: ride the Ferris wheel at the Place de la Concorde after tea at the Hotel de Crillon’s Winter Garden Tea Room, visit the Musee d’Orsay, wander through Luxembourg Gardens on Sunday afternoon while children push wind-challenged bateaux in the pond, watch the roller-bladers in-line skating up and down the stairs of the Palais de Chaillot in the Troccadero, watch men playing chess in the Tuilleries, and stroll in and out of the elegant boutiques and shops of the Faubourg until, lost and tired, it was time to eat again.
We discovered some wonderful neighborhood bistro’s: Entrecote, where the Maitre d’/owner treated us to his personal wine tasting experience as he enthusiastically joined us to sip and compare Sancerre versus other Loire white varietals….Bistro de Paris, a bustling neighborhood Sunday evening spot that seems to cater to chic local residents who all know each other but who reach out to the “young Americans” with menu recommendations.
Footsteps of Hemingway
One of my husband’s favorite books is Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast. It is Hemingway’s classic memoir of Paris in the 1920s, filled with irreverent portraits of other expatriate luminaries such as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein, tender memories of his first wife, and insightful recollections of his own early efforts with writing. It also happens to be our favorite café guide for Paris. We love to pretend membership in The Lost Generation and retrace the steps of Hemingway whenever we get to visit Paris.
Friday afternoon we visited Les Deux Magots on the Boulevard Saint-Germain. Les Deux Magots was where Hemingway and other intellectual giants (Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir) would sit and pass the time discussing everything from existentialism to what hotel bar was the best in Paris. What a wonderful place to sit and enjoy a hot-chocolate or an espresso! I sat there and watched the world go by as my husband clearly immersed himself in what Hemingway would recommend for the best fly lures to use this time of year.
Another Hemingway haunt, Brasserie Lipp, 151 boulevard Saint-Germain, is Paris’ quintessential brasserie. Jeff wanted to order whatever Hemingway described in his account of this renowned left bank restaurant, which was choucroute. Choucroute is a plate of sausage, pork and sauerkraut served with the Lipp’s eye-watering mustard. Choucroute is the perfect meal for a chilly, damp night in Paris. I chose the blanquette de veau – veal stew and vegetables. We enjoyed both our meals with the house Reisling. Bring your hunger with you. And, unless you’re a Parisian star (neither of us fit that description) expect to be sent to the upstairs dining room (the main floor is the “see and be seen” spot). Upstairs is just fine, for the waiters are cheerful and thoroughly professional.
Our Friend Louis
Not mentioned in A Moveable Feast, Chez L’Ami Louis has to be our favorite restaurant in Paris, and whenever we visit Paris, we make the obligatory pilgrimage. Located in one of Paris’ more dubious arrondissements (32, rue Vertbois, Paris 3) L’Ami Louis is a genuine Paris phenomenon. Few restaurants are as dilapidated, quirky, or as outrageously priced. The original Louis sold the place some 30 odd years ago to another guy named Louis with the condition that nothing be changed from it’s original appearance. The walls are the same depressing color of brown, all of the original photos remain, cement shows where the tile floor has worn away. It truly looks like a dive, but nowhere in the world offers a better roast chicken or foie gras. I opted for the coquilles Saint-Jacques – scallops in garlic and tomatoes. As my chair rocked back and forth from the un-evenly worn levels of tile and cement, my husband recounted how the columnist/political humorist Art Buchwald, who lived the good life in postwar Paris as a news correspondent, described L’Ami Louis in his old dispatches to the Washington Post. Oh, if those walls could talk about Buchwald’s opinions of the Cold War, the Russians, and deGaulle!
The Ultimate Tourists, but Loving It!
But we really went to Paris for romance, not Hemingway or Buchwald. With the friendly concierge help of Jean-Jacques at Hotel Montalembert, we were able to secure (a Herculean task without the “influence” of a good concierge) a window table at sunset at Jules Verne, the second-level (oh, the vertigo!) gastronomic restaurant at the Eiffel Tower. The sleek, spaceship-looking black modernist steel and leather interior is perfectly offset by the twinkling lights and romance of the view….the City of Lights at night! Our suspicions that it would be déclassé touristy were entirely wrong; this “hardest reservation in Paris” is an elegant affair with top line gastronomic offerings and superb, professional service. What could top it off? We managed to catch the last Seine Bateau-Mouche ride of the night, floating romantically from the Eiffel Tower through the wonderland of bridges, palaces, and Napoleonic splendor while swaying to music of Piaf , Aznavour, and finally a choral Ave Maria when we passed the flying buttresses and gargoyles of Notre Dame. “Mon Dieu,” I said to myself. “It doesn’t get any better than this!”
Find out more about Hotel Montalembert.