My dear friend and hairdresser Ingrid and her partner Donny were planning a trip to Paris, so I quickly jotted a few notes for them. Thought some of you might be interested, though those who followed my Europe blog will have heard it all before.
A few of Beth’s RECOMMENDATIONS FOR PARIS
Check museum opening and closing hours and closed days – they’re all different. Some have a time during the week when they’re free, and on the first Sunday of the month, almost all of them are free, though very crowded. The big ones have at least one day with extended hours. On those days, suppertime is a good time to visit. If you’re only in town for a few days and want to see a lot of museums, a museum pass is the best bet, because you save money and by-pass line-ups. But if you get your money’s worth, you’ll be tired.
On the top floor of the Pompidou is a chic café/bar with a panoramic view of Paris. You don’t need to eat, you can just have a glass of something.
The velib bicycles are marvellous but it took me ages to figure out how to use them. The posts with the instructions and slots for credit cards are often far from the bikes themselves. Finally, I just walked everywhere.
The tabacs are very useful places, selling newspapers and mags as well as transport tickets and phone cards. You can get single or a stack of 10 bus tickets there, or an Orange pass if you’re going to be around long enough. You can use one bus ticket to transfer to other busses for up to one and a half hours, but you can’t get onto the metro with it. The busses are formidable and give you an eyeful of the city while you’re getting to your destination. (Occasionally, when I was too tired to walk, I just hopped on a bus going anywhere, and then hopped on one coming back.) The bus routes are mapped out on the shelters, and the key destinations are printed on the sides of the busses. Though I always had a map and bus guide with me, I also kept my eye open for a bus that might be going somewhere fairly close to where I wanted to go, and regularly found one, just by watching the names on the sides as they went by. You can get on the busses at the front or, often, in the middle, and punch your ticket in the machine. It’s done on the honour system, though tickets are occasionally checked.
The French never, ever, it seems, get taxis. At least, the people I met.
Always bring a snack out with you, preferably a picnic, so when hunger strikes, you’re not held hostage to expensive, crowded tourist cafés. I always brought a ham sandwich and water, and once had a secret picnic sitting in a window well in one of the little side rooms of the Louvre, another sitting on a rock in the “jungle” outside the Musee de Quai de Branly, listening to the Tarzan noises of the exhibit inside. On the other hand, it’s wonderful to stop at a sidewalk cafe mid-morning to watch the world go by. Very few French walk around with coffees, as we do here. They sit down and enjoy the event.
Speaking of cafés, the tip is always included in French restaurant bills. People generally round the number off and leave a little extra, a bit more extra if you’re very happy with the service, but there’s no obligation to. Waiters are paid well and receive government pensions and health benefits.
Try not to eat anywhere with English on the menu. And if you want to eat with the French and not with the tourists, do not dine before 8.30 and preferably 9.
The most important thing you can bring is a pair of extremely comfortable shoes. By your second day of walking, you will no longer care about style.
Check the dates of French national holidays, and also keep an eye open for imminent strikes. Strikes can only be held with permits, believe it or not, and apparently a daily local newspaper, le Parisien, lists the strikes that are scheduled each day. A strike can seriously impair travelling around the city and be a major headache, so it’s a good thing to try to be aware of them. Ask at the tabac. Also get Pariscope, if you speak even some French – it comes out on Wednesdays, costs pennies and lists absolutely everything going on in the city that week, including the museums with their hours.
French Elle magazine is not only great for fashion but for what’s on in France generally, particularly in Paris, in art, literature, theatre etc.
Speaking of which, do not go to the theatre in France. Period. Unless you wish to explore in depth the meaning of the word “boredom.” Be cautious about concerts in churches; they’re generally aimed at tourists and often not of very good quality.
If you buy lots of stuff, the French Post Office is amazingly efficient and not that expensive. It sells ready-made boxes at so much per kilo. Better to mail yourself a box of stuff than lug it around. One box I mailed arrived in Toronto four days later.
The website Meteo-Paris.com, if you have access, lists the day’s and the week’s weather.
Monoprix is a fantastic store – once like Woolworth’s, now it has amazingly good fashion for very reasonable prices, but also food (not at all but at most), toiletries, cosmetics and housewares. For general groceries, Franprix is great. And for an eye-popping array of frozen foods, if you have access to a stove or microwave, go to Picard. For the best selection of exotic foodstuff in the world, perhaps, go to Bon Marche’s Grand Epicerie. Incroyable. The Nicholas wine shops can help you get a great bottle of wine for 7 euros or less, or, of course, much more.
If you need an Internet café, try to find one with a choice of keyboards. The French keyboard is infuriating.
The Sainte Chapelle, but only on a sunny day when the light pours through the stained glass. Get there early, before it’s crowded. A truly mystical experience.
Four smaller museums: La Musee de la Vie Romantique is very small but lovely and has a beautiful little café outside in a rose-covered bower; the Carnavalet – a free museum of Paris history, fascinating and extensive; t he Cluny Museum of medieval history on the Boulevard St. Michel, and the Rodin Museum, which also has a very nice cafe in the huge garden full of sculptures.
he Cluny Museum of medieval history on the Boulevard St. Michel, and the Rodin Museum, which also has a very nice cafe in the huge garden full of sculptures.
The street markets are terrific and all over the city daily. Ask which morning your local market is held. They sell food, clothing and the usual stuff and are lots of fun. The big flea markets are worth at least one visit. La Rue Mouffetard is an ancient winding street with a food market and a row of small stores – beautiful. Many artists once lived there.
There are small parks and big all over the place, to provide respite. My favourite is the famous and often crowded, always interesting Jardin du Luxembourg. A great place to rest your feet, eat your ham sandwich and watch both tourists and the French.
A few stores: Colette on Rue St. Honore is supposed to be the epicentre of trend. I thought it the epicentre of expense, but worth a look, as is the whole street. Galeries Lafayette, the big, main store, has great, solid stuff and is absolutely spectacular. You can drink champagne and eat caviar, but you’ll be too busy shopping.
Shoes: I loved comfortable, stylish Arcus, 97 rue de Rennes.
Books: the fabulous and famous Shakespeare and Company, 37 rue de la Boucherie facing Notre Dame, for English books. There are readings every Monday night. For French books and everything electronic as well as tickets to concerts and museum exhibits, FNAC.
Famous old restaurants, besides the famous cafes: Procope, 13 rue de l’Ancienne Comedie and Brasserie Lipp on the Blvd. St. Germain.
Poilane bread at 8 rue de Cherche-Midi, which is a very chic little street.
Second hand: a terrific store full of second-hand designer stuff: Embellie, 11 bis rue Vauquelin in the Latin Quarter. I left a pair of shoes and a blouse there on consignment. If you buy them, I get a few Euros towards my return trip.