Thursday, June 28, 2012

5 Day Paris Itinerary for Tweens and Foodies


Ah Paris – beautiful, sophisticated, historic. The city has much to offer just about everyone. We recently spent 5 amazing days there trying to satisfy not only the demands extreme foodies, art and garden loving parents, but also 9 year old Kate, in her first trip to Europe. First lesson: Ice cream cures many ills. Here's what else we learned along the way.

Day 1: Arriving

Notre Dame, Paris
Notre Dame
Arrive in Paris in early afternoon after a 10 hour trip – feeling not too tired yet. After navigating the train and metro to meet our AirBnB hosts and check in to our chic, affordable, charming 2nd arrondissement apartment, we set off for a quick walk to get a feel for the city. First stop to set 9 year old hearts beating in the right direction – the super modern and delicious Gelato shop. Charming scoops shaped like roses with one flavor inside the "petals" of the other give the energy needed to start a walk down to the Seine. Stroll around the Ile de la Cite and Il de St Louis for an hour or so, getting a feel for the city bearings, before stopping off for an early dinner at the well-known Brasserie d'Isle Saint-Louis for some classic bistro food and a crisp Sauvignon Blanc.
With jet lag catching up, call it an early night, but swear adamently that we will NOT be eating "tourist hours" (prior to 8 pm) for the rest of our trip.

Paris Hotels

Day 2: The Sights

Street Art In Paris
Fun "Street Art"
Jet lag is our friend early on the first full day in Paris, as we're wide awake and ready for action long before the average Parisian starts their day. This gives the chance to experience the magic of empty streets; a deserted Notre Dame as the sun rose above the cathedral. Grab a quick coffee, hot chocolate and our first genuine croissant from a shop near Notre Dame and then head for a walk up river towards the Louvre. Since it 's still too early to visit the museum. the Tuileries garden, cool in the spring morning, makes for a lovely detour. Admire the color coordinated perennial beds with their dramatic spikes of purple foxglove and then and stop off for a quick jaunt through the children's playground.

Possession of a Museum Pass, while convenient and a good deal if planning to visit several sites, was not quite the line jumper it claims to be. Go early to the Louvre, and there is still a long line out front. We found an alternate entrance in the garden (the metro station entrance) which was less crowded but still required a 15 minute wait.

Every guidebook will tell you that kids and the Louvre don't mix well. We try to combat this with good preparation. We loved reading a series of graphic novels commissioned by the Louvre – 4 different artists were asked to write stories about the Louvre itself. Each had a unique take and provided a compelling story that brought the Louvre to life. We also spent time reading Louvre Up Close, a overview of some of the major art and artists we may be seeing on the trip. To create an adventure while at the museum, we selected 20 standout pieces that we wanted to see, and printed them out as a small "Scavenger Hunt" book to guide our trip.

Admittedly, while all these efforts helped, the Louvre was still overwhelming and a bit challenging for our Kate to enjoy. We lasted an hour and a half, and found about half the pieces we had selected, before we decided to call it quits and get a snack and a souvenier. (Of course, the gift shop held her attention for nearly as long as the museum).

Next stop – a permanent souvenier for hubby, who has an appointment at Abraxas tattoo, one of the premiere shops in Paris. With him committed for the next few hours, us girls head out across the Pont Royal, admiring the locks placed by lovers all along its railings. Our destination a few short blocks south of the Seine is the famous taxidermy shop, Deyrolle. This fascinating collection (it's upstairs of the shop at that address) holds hundreds of animals, from baby elephant to full size lions and tigers, woodland creatures and birds of all types, butterflies and insects. The specimens are for sale if you're in the market for a unique souvenir.

We continue browsing the fashionable St Germain neighborhood before rejoining hubby for lunch at the incredible foodie destination Le Comptoir.  While dinner reservations may be nearly impossible (and a challenge to the travel budget) visiting one of Paris's finest dining spots for a late lunch let us in on the experience. The food did not disappoint – impeccable steak tartare, classic escargots bourgogne, a superb sesame tuna tartare were delightful. Organic lemonade and 2 scoops of sorbet framboise for the picky one. The only regret: I should have ordered the Lobster bisque – a neighboring table had to suffer many coveting glances once the aroma hit me.

The Eiffel Tower at Night
The Tower At Night
Fortified by food, we're ready to head out on the metro to cross off some of the "must-do" sights. Back to Notre Dame for a quick peek inside the cathedral before heading on the metro to the Eiffel Tower. For the best view of the Tower, take the advice found here and depart the metro at the Trocadero stop, the perfect viewing platform for the tower just close enough to fully fit in your picture frame. For more great photos, a climb of the Arc de Triomphe is not too strenous, and gives amazing 360 degree views of the Paris streets looking their finest, with the Tower in sight.

By now, feet aching and still feeling fairly satiated from an amazing lunch (and maybe still a big jet lagged), its time to head back to the apartment for much needed rest. Today's the perfect day to stop off at the neighborhood boulangerie, charcuterie, fromagerie to pick up some snacks and a lovely bottle or two of wine for an evening picnic.

Day 2: Palace of Versailles


Today its time to head out of the city a bit to experience the over-the-top Palace of Versailles. It's an easy 30 minute train ride and a short walk to the Palace entrance. This is one day where perhaps it would pay to NOT arrive right at opening, as we did, since it seemed that every tour group on the planet was crammed inside the palace, moving at a snail's pace through the rooms. Does it clear up later in the morning? It certainly could not get worse.

Le Hameau at Versailles
Le Hameau at Versailles
After escaping the claustrophobic experience of the palace itself, a much more pleasant afternoon awaits on the grounds. This is a great place to rent a boat to tour the canal, or a bike to cruise the extensive gardens. To prepare ourselves for the visit, we enjoyed reading Abundance: A Novel of Marie Antoinette, or for the younger among us, The Bad Queen. Both novels fuel the imagination about Marie Antoinette's stifled life at the palace, the horrors of etiquette and the pleasures of her Petite Trianon and "Le Hameau", her peasant village farm. Both are must-see parts of the palace gardens. The kitchen gardens at Le Hameau are particularly charming and inspiring – especially the Irises growing out of the roof!

Regroup and rest at the apartment for an hour or two (with a nice bottle of Champagne to help you relax) before heading out to a real Parisian dinner. We walked just a few neighborhood blocks to find a busy and appealing street scene with pedestrian-only zones, many bistros and bars spilling out into the street, and irresibtible chocolate shops, wine shops, and fromageries at every turn. First stop, the wine bar Verjus. We then set out in search of one of the hottest reviews in Paris – Frenchie – home to chef Gregory Marchand, considered one of the top up-and-coming talents. Unfortunately, it was closed for the week (and surely we were delusional thinking we could just waltz in and get a table). No worries though, my second choice was just a few blocks away. Les Fines Gueules turned out to be an impeccable selection. Tip for dining in France – any restaurant with a pre-printed menu, in English, is likely to be a touristy also-ran. The real treasures are found behind chalkboard sidewalk menus that highlighted today's choices. I love how the servers bring the chalkboard to your table, prop it up on a chair, and explain what's on offer (even in English if you wish!)

Day 3. Impressionists and Bones

View from inside the Musee D'Orsay
View from inside the Musee D'Orsay
Ready for another museum day? Today's destination is the Musee D'Orsay, immensely more accessible and easy to love than the Louvre. The setting, in an old train station, is dramatic and feels important. The small, interconnected galleries help you keep your focus and lead you through the collection. The impressionists can't be missed, and we love watching the local art students copy masterworks. Here, our museum Scavenger Hunt is easily completed. Don't miss the view from the roof, through the cafe, of Sacre Coeur.

We're thrilled by the idea of Velib, Paris' system of rental bikes available throughout the city. Just insert credit card and unlock bike, ride it where you want to go, and check it back into another station. Since we've got a ways to travel to our next destination, the Paris Catacombs, this seems the perfect time to give it a try.

Not quite. The heavy bikes are nearly impossible for 9-year old Kate to ride (ok, their website does say you should be 14), and with busy city traffic and no helmet, it takes less than a block to realize this is a foolish mission. A disappointment to be sure, but a stroll through the Luxembourg gardens and an ice cream cone helps to dispel the gloomy faces.

The Paris Catacombs
Creepy Faces in the Paris Catacombs
Next stop – the creepiest place on earth – The Paris Catacombs. Expect to wait – it was about 45 minutes in line on this weekday afternoon in May. Then, descend under the streets of Paris for a stroll. Walk for about 15-20 minutes, and enter the ossuary. 6 million skeletons reside here. Cavern after cavern are filled with bones, all neatly and symmetrically stacked, artistically decorated with skeletons. Each has a plaque detailing which cemetery they were dug from, and the date, along with a few words of poetry, bible verse or ode to the dead (skills in reading French would be a bonus here!). The result of a decision to clean up Paris sometime in the 19th century, when cemeteries across the city were too full, the catacombs are a unique experience.

Another uniquely Paris experience not to miss is the search for the Green Fairy in the sampling of Absinthe. This licorice flavored green concoction, made famous by Toulouse Latrec and Oscar Wilde and compatriots of their time, was banned in the US for many years, only recently becoming available for import or distilled locally. We set out to learn more. The Vert d'Absinthe  is a tiny shop in the 4th arondissement, which sells all sorts of absinthe-related memorabilia, art, devices and of course many bottles of the drink itself. Great to bring home, but for a taste of the real stuff we headed over to La Fee Verte, a full-blown absinthe bar with a wide variety to try. What fun to participate the in ritual of slowly dripping water over a sugar cube into your drink, watching it turn cloudy and misty, until it is watered down enough to sip. Surely the green fairy is in there somewhere.

Fruit de Mer platter at L'Ecailler du Bistrot, Paris
Fruit de Mer platter - Yum!
Tonight's dinner is in the 11th arrondissement at L'Ecailler du Bistrot. Here we're branching out to experience a bit of Brittany perhaps, with the fruit de mer platter, a tower of seafood not to be missed. Don't skip the tiny little snails with the clever pick to pull them out of their shell. Delicious.

Day 4: In Search of Treasure

It's the weekend, and we're headed to a classic Paris flea market. Les Marches des Puces sprawls up and down several streets and features every imaginable knicknack. We window shop, looking at antique furniture and linens, 70s-style chandeliers and artwork, old books. It's like the world's best garage sale. We're on the hunt for just the right skeleton key as a souvenir  and we sort through the offerings at several stalls before parting with our 2 euros.

And we're off. .. the French countryside awaits us for the rest of our adventures on this vacation. But our trip to Paris is not complete without one last amazing experience a week later, as we arrive back for one last night. The Moulin Rouge is a budget-busting splurge, but the amazing vibe inside the theater is an experience we won't soon forget. Friends back home questioned taking a 9 year old and although I had no qualms about the "exposure", I was a bit worried about the late hour (the early show starts at 9, which after a busy day seems to be inviting a nap to me). My fears were unfounded however, as the show entertained from moment one and keep us all riveted and cheering. An memorable way to end an amazing experience in Paris.




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