That’s the strategy Bill and I used on our recent trip to Paris, a city we’ve been to several times and one that claims a top spot on our list of favorites.
Following two weeks in the Netherlands and Belgium with a side trip to Luxembourg, we arrived in Paris for a few days prior to our flight home. The Benelux countries were new territory for us, so we purposely had loaded our plate with sightseeing.
Just a year had passed since we brought Bill’s mom, Ann, to Paris for her first visit, staying in the 7th arrondissement in an airbnb-rented apartment on rue de Verneuil. Our days then also were jam-packed to acquaint Ann with many of the de rigueur places a first-timer should experience.
Through guided tours and on our own, we saw the Eiffel Tower, Musée du Louvre, Musée d’Orsay, Jardin des Tuileries, Notre Dame Cathedral, Sacre Coeur, and Musée de l’Orangerie, among other top spots. We toured the opulent Versailles nearby, and rode the train to Beaune in the Burgundy region to participate in a shopping tour of the semi-weekly outdoor market and a hands-on cooking class with The Cook’s Atelier. In addition, to observe the 70th anniversary of D-Day, we went to Normandy for a daylong tour of the beaches and battlefields.
Paris this year, though, would be different.
A more relaxed approach was in order. We dialed down our pace and plans, intent on taking in the city as it presented itself, rather than feeling compelled to follow a pre-determined lineup of activities. Serendipity, instead of a full schedule, would be our guide.
As hoped, our brief time in Paris was filled with delightfully unexpected and fortuitous happenings.
We stayed in the same Left Bank neighborhood as we had with Ann, but in an airbnb-rented apartment on rue de Lille. Another ideal location, the apartment was above Le Bistrot de Paris, one street farther north of our previous apartment, and steps away from the river Seine and Musée d’Orsay.
The extent of the wow factor when we entered took us by surprise, despite having viewed photos online and reading the apartment had been spotlighted in the French edition of Elle Décor magazine. Done in neutral shades of black, off-white, and brown, it featured high-end, contemporary finishes and furnishings beneath a ceiling of exposed wooden beams and with walnut-stained wood floors. The galley kitchen, with stainless steel appliances and banquette seating, included a wine refrigerator. Best of all was the covered outdoor terrace, a cozy extended living space with comfortable seating and lush plants (a jardin d’hiver) – the perfect setting for al fresco dining and sipping chilled rosé in the afternoons.
During our first stroll through the neighborhood, we walked past Maison Guyard traiteur, where last year we had bought luscious prepared foods to go and chatted with Colette, who helped with our purchases. Both Bill and I took quick glances inside the shop as we walked past and saw Colette standing behind the cash register. She looked up, spotted us, and hurried outside, exclaiming, “I know you! You’re back!”
We were flabbergasted and thrilled she remembered us one year and untold new customers later. We returned several times for quiches, salads, and pastries to savor on our veranda, and to strengthen our bond with Colette.
A similar event occurred that evening. We bookended our stay with dinners at La Bonne Excuse. This superb, intimate, family-owned restaurant sealed our devotion last year with their ultimate apple tart with warm caramel sauce, and friendly exchanges with Farida, who handles the front of the house, and her chef/husband, José. Afterwards I had written a blog post, The Great Apple Tart Hunt, rhapsodizing over the virtues of their signature dessert. When we walked in the first night and reintroduced ourselves, Farida strode behind the reception desk, opened the drawer, and pulled out the The Roads Traveled luggage tag we’d given her last year as a memento.
Again, flabbergasted and thrilled. And the ultimate apple tart is still the ultimate.
It doesn’t feel like we’re in Paris until we see the Eiffel Tower, my favorite landmark. At approximately 1,000 feet, it dominates the skyline. After polishing off our apple tarts, we walked along Pont Royal, watching the bateaux mouches glide by on the Seine and the Eiffel Tower light up for the evening. The travelers’ universe aligned and we scored a Parisian trifecta – an illuminated tower and a blazing sunset from the west side of the bridge, and a full moon rising over Notre Dame toward the east.
The next day, while I was shopping for provisions at the rain-soaked, open-air food market on Boulevard Raspail, Bill read that the recently renovated and reopened Musée National Picasso-Paris on rue de Thorigny offered free admission on the first Sunday of each month. We rode the metro and waited in line with what seemed like all of Paris, admiring the 17th century Mazarin-style building.
The collection is prodigious – over 5,000 works of art, including Picasso’s paintings, sculptures, prints, engravings, sketches, and photos, and multiple thousands of archived pieces. A focal point of the interior is the ornate central staircase.
On our return home we walked through the Marais district to Place des Vosges, the oldest planned square in Paris. Many consider it to be the city’s most beautiful square. Even in the rain, it certainly is.
When the sun broke through, we chose outdoor pursuits – leisurely reading our Kindles beside the flowers in the Jardin du Luxembourg, lunching at Café de Flore along bustling Boulevard St.-Germain, and strolling amid the majestic gardens and fountains of Palais Royal to Galerie Vivienne, one of the loveliest covered shopping arcades.
Certainly the most serendipitous encounter was with Julie and Pat, a fellow American travel blogger and her photographer husband.
While we were still in Brussels, a friend had sent me the link to Julie’s blog. As luck would have it, these ex-pats were currently renting a small apartment in Paris, the inaugural destination of their new venture traveling the world without a home of their own and with minimal possessions. I emailed her proposing we meet and, happily, she accepted.
On the way to our rendezvous, Bill and I couldn’t resist stopping in at Shakespeare and Company, the historic and eccentric English-language bookstore on the banks of the Seine across from Notre Dame. Housed in a 17th-century building with a hunter green facade, Shakespeare and Company is the epitome of a classic bookstore with its warren of small, dimly-lit wooden rooms. The floor-to-ceiling shelves are tightly crammed with books of every possible topic, and the walls are accented with literary sayings, art, and artifacts. Moving from room to room and floor to floor felt akin to reading a novel, turning page after page to allow the narrative to unfold. As we left, we looked up and saw the resident white cat surveying the scene from a window ledge.
Bonding over wine and conversation at the riverside Brasserie de l’île St.-Louis, Julie, Pat, Bill, and I forged a new friendship as we shared travel stories and insights about logistics. It turns out they’ll be in northern California later this summer when we are. They had registered for a conference for travel writers and photographers there, and I signed up as well.