In my imagination, I am the urbane flaneur who idles happily in the cafes and parks of Paris with no particular agenda beyond the interested observation. The reality, alas, is that I harbor far too restless and results-oriented a temperament to fully embrace the role of flaneur. Perhaps there is a good reason why English has no easy synonym for a word that means – more or less – one who strolls as a way of life. It is simply not in our nature. And yet, when it comes to Paris at least, I am fortunate to have been there often enough to be able to sit quietly over a café crème without fretting too much over which museum I may be short-changing. Indeed, some of my very favorite memories of Paris involve these quiet moments: a morning walk alone in the Jardin des Plantes, a glass of St. Amour with my wife overlooking the Place des Vosges. When I was a young man, I arrived in Paris with dense notes and academic vigor. I read, among many things, all 3 volumes of Thirza Valois’ excellent Around and About Paris (which I recommend to the insatiable enthusiast) and set about, arondissment by arondissment, digesting the escargot swirl of neighborhoods. I don’t regret it for a moment but damned if I remember the half of it. Maybe it’s this aspect of my aging memory that has tempered my compunction for such prodigiously detailed itineraries. Maybe it’s the realization that what one recalls are the broad strokes and a few select details…like the boatman’s red hat in a painting by Corot. And so, I thought I would share with you the general musings of my personal Paris but with sufficient details to fill the notebook of a younger, still results-oriented reader. Some of my musings may date me to the ancien regime. I’m not sure, for example, whether Deyrolle, following a fire some years back, is the same cornucopia of antediluvian delights it once was or whether Chez Allard’s soul-satisfying duck for two is still something to quack about. Nevertheless, some things seem unlikely to change or, even if they have, are worthy of reminiscence.
Monuments and Museums
Let us begin with the more immutable Paris; the spots sometimes neglected by the oversaturated tourist but deserving of attention.
For me, the small house museums of Paris are amongst the great delights of the city. Like truffles, they are little treasures that allow one to absorb a distinctly specific experience consumed in a short amount of time. There are three for which I have a particular fondness. One of my very favorite places in Paris – especially on a sunny day – is the pairing of the Musee Camondo and the adjacent Park Monceau. To stand in that maison particuliere with the sun pouring in through the long windows, illuminating the 18th century gilded furniture is to feel a rarified magnificence. The suspension of time envelops one like a bergere. There are countless little details that allow one to imagine actually living in such resplendence, from the preserved kitchen to the most elegant gilded, daily clipboard you’ll ever behold. Then take a little time strolling (or “flaning” if you will) around the Park Monceau, absorbing the serene townhouses that encompass it, perhaps selecting one for yourself in a Camondo-inspired daydream.
The Musee Jacquemart-Andre is perhaps architecturally less refined that the Camondo but preserves some lovely aspects and has decidedly better paintings including two wonderful Canalettos, a strong Vigee-Lebrun and, surtout, Rembrandt’s “Disciples at Emmaus.” It also has the only café I can think of that can boast a Tiepolo fresco. The third small house museum worth exploring would be the Musee Cognacq-Jay, which has some lovely 18th century furniture (notably, to my recollection, an elegant desk by Weisweiler and beautiful small tables by Oeben).
The Musee Marmatton is a wee bit out of the way but readily accessible by metro. If the Musee d’Orsay has not sated your appetite for impressionism, this is the place to go. It is best known for its trove of late Monets but what rises most readily to the surface of my memory is an exceptional Morisot, “Eugene Manet at the Isle of Wight.” There are also, unexpectedly, some fine Napoleonic items. The Musee Rodin and the Musee Carnavelet require less salesmanship but I point them out as two museums with particularly lovely gardens for those sunny afternoons when you crave some museum time without sacrificing the outdoors. The last small museum I will point out (which requires restraint) is the Musee de Cluny, devoted to medieval art and architecture. The space itself is beautiful and rewards an hour’s stroll. Its most heralded possessions are the unicorn tapestries but there are innumerable engaging works like a collection of 14th through 16th century shoes and an amusing 12th century tric-trac (backgammon) piece that depicts a knight riding a rooster.
You have or will again see the Louvre and the Musee d’Orsay, as well you should. But if you’re travelling with children (or still a child at heart), you might enjoy a trip to the Musee d’Histoire Naturelle and the Musee de l’Armee. The former is a double pleasure as it abuts the Jardin des Plantes with its pleasant walking paths and its 10,000 specimens of plants. It can be quite peaceful here, almost abandoned some mornings and the museum, with its cornucopia of animal skeletons and minerals can make for unexpectedly fun diversion, particularly if you (or your kids) have had their share of churches and paintings. Now something called the Army Museum might not sound enticing in the City of Lights but if you’ve ever enjoyed a stroll through the Arms and Armor wing of the Metropolitan Museum, you would likely enjoy passing an hour amongst its fine collection of armor.
I am hardly unearthing a great discovery by recommending a visit to the St. Chapelle cathedral and yet, its interior magic is easily overlooked by the passerby heading toward Notre Dame for the one, requisite cathedral pilgrimage. To my mind, there is no more breathtaking Gothic interior. It is as if they distilled all the glory of the Gothic into a confined space, stripping away the extraneous and the gloom that can occasionally oppress the modern visitor to a Gothic cathedral. Perhaps, being of short stature, I take a particular interest in small masterpieces that prove larger works superfluous. It’s like the iPod of Gothic cathedrals, packed with wonder yet so thoughtfully compact. The descriptor “jewel box” is an overused one in antiquary circles but no words better capture the luminescence of being in that stained-glass interior space. Sacre Coeur, for all its votives, doesn’t hold a candle to it. If you’ve never been, for God’s sake, please go. (If you do go to Sacre Coeur, take an extra five minutes stroll down the beautiful little street of Villa Leandra). For another compact but powerful interior, follow the serpentine streets of Huchette and Hotel Colbert in the 6th to take in the swirling “palm grove” colonnade behind the altar of St. Severin. And as for Notre Dame, one of the loveliest views of it can be appreciated from the worthy, petite Jardin de St. Julien le Pauvre.
Restaurants, Food and Wine
Back in 2003, while America was searching Iraq for weapons of mass destruction, I spent a more fruitful month scouring the venerable bistros of Paris with fellow gloutons de masse degustacion. I did so with missionary zeal, my practical guide being Patricia Wells’ trustworthy Guide to the Restaurants of Paris and my inspirational guide being A.J. Liebling’s Between Meals. I endeavored to appreciate one classic bistro per night and might well have succeeded had not my digestive system, perhaps taking a cue from the French railway system, decided to go on strike somewhere deep into the third week. I’ve recovered sufficiently enough to be able to tell the tale and I hope you appreciate the sacrifices I made to bring it to you. My favorites among the 20+ I sampled reflect an aggregate of the restaurant’s ambience, perceived genuineness, quality and service. This is decidedly not the place to come for a review of what is hip and now. These are not “discoveries” so much as holdouts of old Paris (even if, one by one, they have been purchased by modern conglomerates). It’s always suboptimal to review a restaurant based on a single experience but until I muster the fortitude to repeat my experiment, it will simply have to do for most. So here they are, with all shameless gratification that comes with naming one’s favorite Parisian bistros….
- A Souseyrac – The term “to be Souseyracked” has joined the family lexicon as indicative of a meal so rich as to require a significant recovery period. The generous portions of the Gascon fare are well worth the taxi ride to the 11th, the undistinguished décor and the recovery period.
- Allard – One could grouse about the number of tourists but in my three meals here, I have always left perfectly content at well-executed classics served in a warm ambience. The entrees for two were particularly memorable.
- Aux Charpentier – This old dame is appealing in a no-frills kind of way. All I had was a Boeuf aux carrotes and a glass of Bourgeuil but the unpretentious heartiness of the place and the meal was enough to win me over.
- La Coupole – The reason to go to this venerable brasserie is not so much for the food as for the opportunity to appreciate one of the mother of all brasseries and the look that birthed a thousand ersatz brasseries across the world. Since its ambience is its greatest asset, I’d suggest just going for the cold seafood platter or a plate of oysters and then on to dinner elsewhere.
- Chez George – I have to confess, the food, though admirable, was not the most memorable aspect of the meal. It was more the general vibe of the place, buzzing with a happy and very French energy, complete with the little poodle from central casting sitting at the table next to us. When our table wasn’t ready on time, we were offered a free glass of champagne as we waited at the bar. It’s remarkable how such small gestures, so easily but seldom provided, influence one’s overall impression.
- Fontaine de Mars – OK, so the Obamas having eaten there is likely to have far greater impact than my recommendation but I’ve long sung the praises of this classic-as-can-be bistro. The salmon maniere hareng and the duck a l’orange are the types of dishes that simmer in the hippocampus long after they’ve passed the palate.
- Josephine – This is so old school you can find wine from the 1920’s on the tremendous wine list. The meal was a little uneven, the service a little rough around the edges but the overall impression was greater then the sum of its parts.
- Chez Jenny – Brasserie Lipp is surely the most celebrated brasserie but its service is so appalling that I prefer to steer you to Chez Jenny for a traditional choucroute and beer. A bustling spot with the requisite wood-paneled warmth.
- Pierre Gagnaire – If you have to choose one fine restaurant, Gangaire would be my recommendation. It is a contender for my “final meal,” partly because it is so divine and partly because there is a good chance I would simply slip into a food coma and never awaken. It’s difficult to have a bad meal there simply by virtue of the number of miniature meals one has at a sitting. It’s more like having five extraordinary meals…which makes it somehow easier to justify the considerable expense. Every taste, right down to the flavors coaxed from a simple slice of tomato, seemed the gustatory equivalent of putting on 3D glasses. The Service was ever-present without hovering and notably bereft of hauteur. The room was tastefully understated, allowing for focus on the festival of food. Consider going for lunch as it will leave you the rest of the day to reflect and recover.
Wine and Food shops
My favorite old-world wine shops are Ryst-Duperon on the lovely Rue du Bac and Legrand Fille & Fils on Rue de la Banque. For cheese, the stink of Barthelemy is unsurpassed. For hot chocolate, Dalloyau and Angelina, for a tasteful cup of tea Laduree and Mariage Freres. For bread and pastries, I have a sentimental attachment to Gerard Mulot. My favorite outdoor market (though I’ve yet to meet one I haven’t liked) is the picturesque Marche Monge.
At the risk of revealing some most secret sources, there are some antique destinations I always try to fit in during a trip to Paris. Obviously, the Marche aux Puces is a destination unto itself. I particularly enjoy Bachelier at the Marche Serpette with its cornucopia of wine and food-related antiques. Comoglio on the Rue du Bac is similarly suited to a vintage kitchen find (make sure to see upstairs). Nearby Remi Flachard specializes in old menus and other ephemera. Librarie de L’Abbaye is another favorite source for historical documents. Rummaging through the folios of prints at the venerable Paul Proute always makes me feel like a collector captured in a Daumier drawing. Directly across the way is Martinez Fleurot, another print shop with interesting offerings. I think the little triangle formed of Proute, Fleurot and the patisserie Gerard Mulot on the Rue de Seine is about as close to heaven as the Merry Antiquary gets. Librarie Serge Plantureux has a wonderful and eclectic collection of photographs and historical documents and is located in the only mall I’ve ever loved…the beautiful, arcaded 19th century Gallerie Vivienne. For truly haute antiques, Perrin and Francois Leage are feasts for the eyes. Though not especially practical, J. Feau & Cie in the 17th is a fun place to appreciate fine, antique wood paneling. ..because you never know when it might come in handy. Lastly, the great Deyrolle, while perhaps more curiosity than antique shop, deserves mention here. It is a repository of taxidermy and something of a cabinet of wonders. Kids love it (at least those not completely freaked out by it) and, despite a fire that gutted it a few years back, remains one of Paris’ quirky institutions.