What do you think of when someone mentions Paris? The Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, Arc de Triomphe, the Moulin Rouge….and 50 other sights, or museums, or galleries or bistros that everyone has on their must-do list?
But scratch the Gallic surface and you can really get to know the city, and feel that you’re seeing it more as a shoulder-shrugging local than as a Nikon-toting tourist.
Here are a few more ideas for you from a recent trip I made to this glorious city (with 5 others in an earlier article). Some I stumbled upon myself and some I was led to by a great book (Quiet Paris by Siobhan Wall). I explored them all, in the interests of helping other Silver Travellers get off the well-beaten Parisian track:
1. La Grande Epicerie – rue du Bac and rue de Sèvres, 6th/7th arrondissements
Shopping and me are poor bedfellows. Normally, I’d rather carve a rustic pattern on my index finger with a Swiss army knife than go shopping on holiday.
But – quelle surprise – la Grande Epicerie du Bon Marché in Paris is retail heaven, even for a disbeliever like me, and drew me into its foodie bosom like a hungry child to its tea.
First opened in 1923 as the food counter for neighbouring legendary department store du Bon Marché, it has now – since an impressive makeover in 1999 – become “an unmissable treat, an unadulterated delight and a unique experience”. How true. With a scarcely believable 3,000 square metres of retail space, from which they sell 30,000 gourmet products, la Grande Epicerie is a cross between Selfridges and Harrods, but more chic and without the bling factor.
The entire ground floor groans with exquisite fresh produce – seafood, cheeses, vegetables, meats, fruit, bread, patisseries – and posh groceries, beers and ciders. Affluent Parisians shop here, but Silver Travellers can sit at one of the high tables, dotted discreetly around the emporium, and indulge in a dozen oysters, or an éclair crafted with as much love as Heloise showed Abelard.
Downstairs is the wine cellar, together with an intimate champagne bar and apparently “further hidden treasures in the vaults for more devoted connoisseurs”. I obviously wasn’t devoted enough to find those.
And on the 1st Floor you can drool over kitchen equipment, gleaming crystal and silverware that would adorn Versailles as fittingly as a small maison in Montmartre. There’s also a beautifully light and airy bistro, should all that food browsing whet your appetite for a lunch befitting the surroundings.
It was like a religious conversion for me, so I hope you’d enjoy this off-the-beaten-track gastronomic temple too.
2. The Montparnasse Tower – Avenue du Maine, 15th arrondissement
The Eiffel Tower draws tourists to it, “comme des abeilles à un pot de miel”. Not surprising, given its iconic design and closeness to the Seine.
But the lesser known “Tour Montparnasse” arguably provides better views across the whole of Paris, being located right next to the Montparnasse station in the 15th arrondissement. And definitely has shorter queues. What a shame it’s such an ugly structure, causing so much public outrage that building regulations were subsequently changed.
Completed in 1973, it stands 689 feet high and contains office space for over 5,000 Parisian workers. Visitors can pay €15 for the exhilarating 38 second lift ride up to the 56th Floor, where the whole city is spread out below you like a table-cloth for a picnic. And after a short walk up to the 59th Floor you can access the highest roof terrace in Paris.
Zut alors, what amazing views.
The graphic boards really help with orientation, although it’s quite strange trying to spot such large iconic landmarks as the Sacre-Coeur and Notre-Dame on the flattened horizon.
The size of the Montparnasse Cemetery took my breath away, as did the beauty and structure of the Jardin du Luxembourg. And you can also eyeball the Eiffel Tower to the north west, each structure co-existing like Cinderella and a Very Ugly Sister.
3. Musée de la Vie Romantique – rue Chaptal, 9th arrondissement
Far from the madding crowd, enjoy an hour in quiet exploration of this tiny piece of historic and artistic Parisian life.
Tucked away, down a narrow cobbled street in the southern foothills of Montmartre – in a district known as “New Athens” – is an exquisite property that was the home of the Dutch artist Ary Scheffer throughout the first half of the 19th century. He hosted Friday salons, with guests including Delacroix, Liszt and Rossini.
Two of his most regular visitors were George Sand and her lover Frédéric Chopin. Somewhat bizarrely, you can see a plaster cast of her right arm – and the musician’s left hand – in one of the 8 small rooms forming this understated museum.
Don’t expect the Louvre. You’ll see a collection of Ary’s paintings, some sculptures from his contemporaries and a collection of personal memorabilia for George Sand.
But free entry (although not always the case, according to Trip Advisor), an insight into genteel 19th century society in this interesting Paris location, and a delightfully peaceful tea garden make this a worthwhile detour en route to the more touristy Moulin Rouge or Montmartre.
4. Seb’on – rue d’Orsel, 18th arrondissement
Fancy a piece of real French cooking, in a small restaurant in the heart of Montmartre, with amazing food and none of the “hauteur” you get in more famous bistros?
Then head for Seb’on. Only open for 6 months, Sebastien in the kitchen, and Dorota out front, have worked culinary magic in the rue d’Orsel since opening just 6 months ago. They do everything themselves and already seem to have created a well-oiled, finely-tuned culinary machine.
In a narrow dining room with only 11 tables, the décor is simple. White-washed plaster and brick walls, a couple of mirrors, an old plaster “cabinet” displaying some wooden skittles, fire sticks, wooden balls and a glass lamp. And a couple of blackboards with the all-important – and often-changing – menu.
There are only three choices for each course. Here’s what I chose and really enjoyed on my final night in the city:
– lentil salad with veal, a foie gras crumble and honey vinaigrette
– supreme of chicken fermier with violette mustard, smashed potatoes with mushrooms and a (divine) chicken juice/gravy
How can such a humble chicken be elevated to such giddy, satisfying heights? And be as moist as the crowd’s eyes after the guillotine has fallen on another innocent head? The smashed spud (écrasée sounds so much more exciting) is superbly textured against smoothness of the fowl’s flesh, and is infused by a sauce that delivers a warm, satisfying depth of flavour beyond anything I’ve ever poured over our Sunday roast at home.
After a few days of foodie excess, I stepped away from the sweets but those options were:
– green lemon meringue
– caramel and cream cake
– mascarpone and lemon cream biscuit
Dorota speaks excellent English and there’s an English printed menu if you don’t want to fumble your way through the French blackboards.
My total bill, including a generous glass of vin rouge and a palate-stripping espresso was a reasonable €43. Magnifique.
5. Un Dimanche A Paris – Cour du Commerce St André, 6th arrondissement
Head here, in the heart of bohemian Saint-Germain, to worship at the altar of chocolate.
Tucked away, in an almost hidden cobbled street more famous for le Procope – the oldest bistro in paris – is this chocolate heaven.
Part laboratory, part shop and part restaurant, it oozes class from every sweet pore.
I was there too early for lunch, and succumbed only to a large thimble of hot chocolate so rich and perfect it should be illegal. Or used as an incentive for recalcitrant Parisian youths. Just €2.20 for a petit morceau of heaven.