Joyeux Noel in Paris
We have come to refer to 2011 as a “trying year,” and were rather relieved to see it come to an end. We experienced several significant disappointments last year, all the more frustrating because they were beyond our control. So we decided to seize control of our holiday, take advantage of a slow period at work, and travel to Paris for Christmas. We had never experienced Christmas without spending time with either (and often both) sides of our family before, and knew it would be a little strange. But we also knew that a vacation adventure somewhere new to us, far away and beautiful would be just what our little family of two needed to close out the year. So, with an abundance of redeemed American Express points, flight upgrades from an extremely generous friend, a corporate rate at a fancy hotel, and the blessing of supportive and understanding family members, we were off. (Warning, if you don’t particularly enjoy looking at other people’s vacation photos (a ridiculous amount of them) and hearing about their trip (ad nauseum) then this will be a trying post for you and you should move along to something else on the Internet. We’ll be back to regular recipe posting in a few days.)
We stayed at the Hotel de Crillon, located in the heart of the city on the Place de la Concorde. The hotel is a former palace (and very much looks like it!) that was turned into a hotel in 1909. The building is beautiful and our room was very “French,” with pale blue walls accented with gorgeous decorative white molding, tall windows framed with heavy silk draperies and rooms lit by fancy crystal chandeliers. The white marble bathroom featured heated floors, a huge tub, separate shower with ceiling-mounted rain shower head and heated towel rack. If there hadn’t been so much to see and do in the city (and if there had been more English-speaking TV options other than CNN and a channel running bad movies subtitled in Arabic), we could have spent the entire trip ensconced in the luxury of our room.
The hotel lobby was beautifully decorated for the holidays with lots of little Christmas trees and branches festooned with tiny white lights and shiny gold and silver teardrop ornaments for a magical but elegant effect. That harp in the lobby was not just decorative — a woman was playing it one afternoon during tea-time. Although we never made it for tea, The Winter Garden bar at the hotel is renowned for its afternoon tea service. The hotel also has two amazing restaurants — one of which served us a delightful Christmas dinner — and a swanky bar with a piano for evening cocktails (and if you know us at all, you know we made it there, more than once.) An interesting quirk we discovered in Paris — a surprising number of restaurants play recorded American songs as the background music. In the hotel bar, for example, when the piano guy was on break, we heard what seemed to be the equivalent of an “easy listening” station. At another bar, we were treated to some American classics from the 1990s. A seafood place we visited on Christmas for an oyster snack featured Motown favorites. We got a kick out of it every single time we heard familiar tunes in such an unfamiliar place. Say what you will about the Parisian’s attitude toward Americans, but apparently they really like our music.
And we really, really liked the impeccable service at the Hotel de Crillon. Fiona was our guest relations contact and left us a handwritten note every single day. We also received a variety of surprise “treats” daily — a delicious little pound cake with chocolates and fruit one day, a perfect pink rose in a cut-glass vase in our luxurious bathroom the next, and a pitcher of lovely ice tea (with lots of ice!) on the final afternoon of our stay. All of the staff we encountered were friendly and extremely helpful.
We arrived in Paris around 9:30 a.m. local time, which was about 2:30 a.m. Texas time. We knew that the best way to acclimate ourselves to the time difference was to get out and about and stay awake as long as possible. We checked in, unpacked and cleaned up, then hit the streets. This is the view of the Place de la Concorde (with “La Grande Roue” — the ferris wheel) from the front of our hotel. We were blessed with great weather on our visit — it was sunny nearly every day and although a little chilly, we bundled up and were perfectly cozy walking all over Paris.
The very first thing we did in Paris was tour the Christmas Market that was set up right next to our hotel, along the Champs-Elysees (I still have not mastered the pronunciation of this famous main avenue in Paris — and may never. But, we quickly learned that the key to the French language seems to be ignoring consonants and saying things quickly, yet softly, with a slight lilt at the end. And that a little bit of attempted French pronunciation goes a long way toward forgiveness of American accents and zero knowledge of any actual French words.)
The Market was amazing — so many vendors lined along both sides of the avenue, with a huge selection of wares: salumi and other charcuterie; cheeses; chocolates and baked goods; toys and trinkets; scarves and other cold weather accessories; jewelry; candles and soaps; etc. etc. The market was also the first place we saw the Paris sandwich that would become our go-to lunch of the trip. We affectionately refer to it now as “Le Sandwich.” It could not be more simple — a baguette with butter and thin slices of proscuitto — or more delicious. We have already attempted to recreate Le Sandwich back at home, but our American-made bread, pasteurized butter and non-French cured ham cannot possibly compete.
The Champs Christmas Market was rather overwhelming (a contributing factor could have been that our bodies wondered why the heck we we walking around outside on a sunny day when clearly we should have been sound asleep in the dark), but going there around noon on Christmas Eve proved to be one of the smartest decisions of the trip. We were able to stroll through the market that day, sipping a “Vin Chaud” (translation: hot wine. Less terrible than expected), and admiring all the merchandise. When we went back to the Christmas Market that evening in our continued effort to stay awake as late as possible — Holy Christmas Crowd, Batman! It was nuts, with wall-to-wall people. Paris “Pro” Tip #1 — avoid the Christmas Markets at night time, if you want to actually see or potentially buy anything.
After the market, we walked around the neighborhood for quite a while, and found ourselves in what became one of our favorite locations of the trip — Jardin des Tuileries, the garden between the Louvre and the Place de la Concorde. Even with most of the vegetation dormant for the winter, the garden is a lovely place for a stroll, with numerous statutes and sculptures to admire, two large ponds to sit beside and watch the toy boats and birds, and a couple of cafes for a nosh and some people watching. There was something quite comforting on our first trip to this foreign city to see the ferris wheel in the distance as a landmark from which we knew our hotel was only a short distance away.
The west end of the Tuileries Garden is elevated and provides wonderful views of the hustle and bustle of the Place de la Concorde, the ferris wheel and the Eiffel Tower in the distance (looks so tiny!)
It’s also a great spot to catch a gorgeous sunset.
We finished up our first night in Paris with more walking, as we wandered around looking for the Ritz hotel. We found it, and enjoyed a couple of cocktails (I had the “Seredipity” — possibly the best, and certainly the most expensive, cocktail I’ve ever had) and a bite to eat at the very charming and intimate Hemingway Bar. I would imagine that strolling the quaint neighborhoods of Paris in the evening is a nice thing to do most of the year, but doing it during the holiday season, with all of the lights and decorations was really something special.
Also special and most impressive? Touring Notre Dame on Christmas Day.
We caught the tail end of Mass and got blessed by the Cardinal on his way out (along with the thousands of other tourists and people attending Mass).
For the most part, everyone seemed to respect the signs asking for silence, allowing for a reverent experience in this breathtaking cathedral, despite the crowds. I lack the photography skills and knowledge to even begin to capture the beauty and majesty of the art, stained glass, sculpture and architecture within Notre Dame. You’ll just have to trust us and go there to see it for yourself.
After Notre Dame, we had some time to kill before our next Christmas Day activity — a walking tour of the Latin Quarter. While heading toward the meeting spot for the tour, we were excited to come upon this amazing display of oysters, mussels, crabs and other seafood, and decided to take our chance on getting a table in the attached restaurant, despite not having a reservation. We had read that many Parisians enjoy oysters and other seafood during the Christmas holiday, so we felt quite “local” by doing the same.
We were seated right away in the charming and light-filled dining room, next to the giant aquarium housing live lobsters. The hostess handed us our menus, which we were surprised to discover were iPads! She discretely selected the English version for each of us without even having to ask (who’s feeling local now?) and showed us how to navigate the selections. We found it helpful that the oyster descriptions also listed the oyster size, although “small” does not necessarily translate as you might think. Paris “Pro” Tip #2: oysters in Paris are big. Really big. So if you prefer yours on the smaller side, order the “tiny” size.
The oysters were plump (some more plump than others) with a really nice sweet, yet briney flavor. Our favorite moment during our Paris oyster experience came when the well-dressed, attractive older Parisian couple seated next to us raised their glasses to toast us and wish us “Merry Christmas” in English. It was so sweet. We toasted and wished them “Joyeux Noel” in return.
Dan has a friend whose sister lived in Paris for a while, and she was kind enough to put together a fantastic list of sights, activities and restaurants for us (thanks again Linda!), including a walking tour by the company “Paris Walks.” We could not have been happier with the experience. Our guide was extremely knowledgeable and passionate about the history of Paris and the Latin Quarter in particular. We learned a lot and would not have had nearly as meaningful an outing if we had toured the area on our own. The Latin Quarter is named as such because Latin was widely spoken in the area during the Middle Ages and by teachers and students in the early universities. Throughout its history, the area has been known as a powerful center of learning and is home to the famous Sorbonne University. Our tour guide explained that prior to the creation of the university, some of the earliest professors would lecture from building windows such as the one above, to students lining the street below.
In addition to our history lesson along the streets of the Latin Quarter, our guide took us through the Church Saint-Severin, one of the oldest churches still standing on the Left Bank of Paris and known for its “Flamboyant Gothic” style of architecture and gorgeous stained glass.
Smaller than Notre Dame, but no less impressive (or less difficult to adequately capture in photographs.)
According to our tour guide, the architect of the Paris Opera, Charles Garnier, was a financial supporter of Saint-Severine and insisted that his image be prominently included in one of the stained glass windows of the church (it appears in the window called “Jesus Blessing Children.”) That is Monsiuer Garnier in the top left corner. Sort of looks like the world’s first-ever photo bomb, no?
Our walking tour concluded across the street from the Sorbonne, near the statue of Michel de Montaigne, a writer known as the father of the essay style of writing. You may notice that his foot is a different color than the rest of the statue. That’s because students of the Sorbonne believe it is good luck to rub his foot before taking a exam, so his foot has been rubbed to a shiny golden patina. Although it has been a very long time since either of us was a student taking exams, we rubbed it too. A little extra luck in the smarts department ain’t gonna hurt!
The following day, we headed through the Tuileries to the Louvre. It was a gorgeous day, sunny and warm enough to sit outside, so we figured the art could wait while we enjoyed a charcuterie plate and sandwich (but not “Le Sandwich” — possibly the only day we didn’t have one) at Cafe Reale. Weather and time permitting, we highly recommend incorporating a stop at this or the other cafe in the Tuileries garden as part of your Louvre experience.
On to the art! Along with apparently every other human being visiting Paris that day. Paris “Pro” Tip #3: take the advice of anyone who has ever been to or written about the Louvre and BUY YOUR TICKETS AHEAD OF TIME. The line to buy tickets was insane. We bought ours from the hotel concierge that morning and walked right in. We know the Louvre is huge, with a tremendous amount to see, and would be very crowded, so we limited our plan of attack to the “top 10” sights in one of our guide books.
First up, The Winged Victory of Samothrace, a marble sculpture of the winged goddess Nike.
We had a little trouble finding Mona, as she resides in a room off the main hallway. As we had heard, she is smaller than expected and rather unassuming (despite the large group of people elbowing each other to the front of the crowd to get a photo without other people’s heads in it.) Although interesting and beautiful, seeing the piece in person makes you wonder how it became arguably the most famous painting in the world.
Also beautiful and famous — the Venus de Milo, believed to represent the goddess Aphrodite and sculpted by an unknown artist (I did not know that.)
We saw quite a few statues and sculptures missing their noses. According to Dan’s research, it is suspected that when invaders looted Rome, they broke noses (and sometimes arms) off the statues and took them as souvenirs.
One of my favorite pieces from our Louvre “top 10” was this Slave statue by Michelangelo, sculpted for the tomb of Pope Julius II in Rome. We could probably go back to the Louvre 10 more times and still not see everything we would like to see. But it definitely helps to plan your must-see items ahead of time for a targeted visit, and you will surely run into some unexpected treasures along the way.
In addition to the walking tour suggestion, we followed our Paris-insider friend’s recommendation to take a boat tour (this one in particular), and again, we were not disappointed. We grabbed a bottle of wine and settled in for a picturesque tour of Paris from the Seine. Paris “Pro” Tip #4: try to get a seat on the waters’ edge side of the boat if you plan on taking a lot of photos (or spend a frustrating amount of time trying to take photos above other people’s heads.) According to some, Paris earned its nickname “The City of Light” (La Ville-Lumiere) because it was an important center of education and ideas during the Age of Enlightenment and because it was the first European city to light a major avenue (the Champs-Elysees) with gas lamps. To us, the nickname seems particularly fitting because of the way so many buildings, statues, monuments and art become transformed (and seem designed to do so) when hit by the light of the sun (or moon!) at different times of the day. We particularly loved the golden glow from late afternoon sun.
Although we ran out of time and energy to visit the Eiffel Tower on this trip, we got good views of it from the boat. Back-lit from the slowly setting sun on one side…
…and glowing golden as the boat came around to show the other side. Our tour guide on the boat was very entertaining and regaled us with lots of history and lesser-known facts about all the sites, in English (complete with a funny, overly-exaggerated accent) and French. Did you know that the Eiffel Tower is the most-visited paid monument in the world, and uses many tons of paper each year, just to print admission tickets?
We also learned that Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI were beheaded in the square in front of our hotel (turned rosy pink in the sinking sunlight.)
We thoroughly enjoyed the boat tour and might even do it again on our next trip to Paris. Paris “Pro” Tip #5: Go ahead and let the cheesy photographer guy take your picture on the boat prior to departure and check out the photo when the tour is over. You’re not obligated to purchase the picture, but it might end up being the only decent shot of you and your traveling companion(s) from your entire trip.
Sadly, these lovely lady sculptures are as close as we got to the Musee d’Orsay, home of an extensive collection of impressionist masterpieces. Despite having bought tickets online before we even left for Paris, all lines for the museum were way too long, especially on the coldest day of our trip. So we went with Plan B and visited another place recommended by our Paris-insider friend: La Grande Epicerie, which is a gourmet grocery store that we can best describe as Central Market on steroids, and one of our favorite sites of the trip. This expansive store had any and all types of high-end French food imaginable (and even more we couldn’t have imagined) — including little vacuum-sealed packages of ready-to-cook duck confit! We also really loved the area where La Grande Epicerie is located and will mostly likely plan to stay there on our next visit to Paris. (Sure sign of a good trip is planning your return visit before you’ve even departed for home…)
On our final night in Paris, we were very lucky to get a reservation at the best table in the house at Spring Restaurant, courtesy of Linda, the Paris-insider friend whom we can’t thank enough! It was the perfect end to a truly memorable trip. Spring features a prix fixe menu that we assume changes based on available ingredients (menus are not listed on their website, or even provided at the restaurant.) The small, but elegant location with open kitchen made us feel like we were attending an important dinner party at the fabulous home of our coolest, most well-traveled and culinary-adept friends. And the food was the best we had in Paris by far. The first course was an appetizer sampler of sorts, with gravlox (cured salmon), a cured meat similar to proscuitto, slices of South American pears with herbs, oysters on the half shell with barley, and herbed butter with fresh bread. As soon as we saw and tasted this first course, we knew we were in for an epic meal. It’s impossible to decide which courses were our favorites — there was breaded sole with truffle vinaigrette; Normandy scallops served with braised cabbage and chicken stock “air” (a molecular gastronomy technique); and roast duck with puree of turnips. We lost track of the dessert courses, somewhere between the roasted apple with goat’s milk sorbet and homemade marshmallow dusted with powdered chocolate. It was a meal we are unlikely to experience again any time soon. Absolutely amazing.
It is no surprise that Paris is often called the most-visited city in the world. Ernest Hemingway described it eloquently: “If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.” There is much about Paris that will stay with us, including its rich history, incredible works of art (not just in the museums but in the gardens, on the buildings, and all around the city streets), decadent food created from the most simple ingredients, and transformative golden light. Someone asked us if Christmas in Paris lived up to the hype. If the “hype” involves an entire city going all out with holiday decor, cheer and traditions, while cultivating its status as, according to travel writer Rick Steves, “a world capital of art, fashion, food, literature and ideas” — then we would say yes, it did indeed live up to the hype. Paris was all we had hoped for and more, and we can’t wait to go back.