On our last trip to Paris, we took a guided walking tour of Saint-Germain-des-Prés. Although we didn’t feel a need to rewalk the neighborhood, we always welcome an opportunity to revisit the fun, pretty neighborhood and made a few stops:
- The Pierre and Marie Curie Museum which, as discussed in our Paris Museum post, explains the work that earned Pierre, Marie and their daughter Irene Nobel Prizes and led to incalculable breakthroughs in the treatment of cancer;
- The Zadkine Museum, with a collection of the sculptor’s work;
- The Parthenon, the Italian-inspired monument (currently under renovation) where French notables including Voltaire, Victor Hugo, Emile Zola, and Marie Curry are entombed;
- The Luxembourg Gardens, which combines a horticultural garden with a public garden, playground, tennis courts, forests, and a building that when we visited had an exhibit of Sylvie Ometz’s stained glass creations;
- St-Sulpice church (especially for the Delecroix murals of St. Michael slaying the dragon and Jacob arriving in the Promised Land.
- Les Deux Magots, the Bohemian bistro of the mid-1900s, where we stopped for a couple drinks.
At least as interesting are the warrens of colorful small, often cobbled streets that house small shops (like Rue de Furstemberg), epicurean shops and colorful cafes (like Rue de Buci), a reinvigorating marketplace (like rues Mabillon and Clement), and galleries (like Rue de la Princesse).
We also took a themed walking tour though Saint-Germain-des-Prés neighborhood. This tour, as discussed in our post on Two Tales of a Revolution, was to explain the history of The French Revolution. And since the Latin Quarter was the intellectual centers of the revolution, we got to see new sections of the Quarter and to learn more of its history.
Casual Left Bank Restaurants
We did eat at one restaurant, Le Symposium (Left Bank). We were looking for something other than the standard fare you can get on Île de la Cité and Île Saint-Louis. We found it just over the bridge from Île de la Cité. Fondues, and not just any fondue, but goat cheese and duck meat—two that we had never before had. We were hooked and, by the end of the meal, we were satiated and happy we chose the restaurant.
The Seventh Arrondisement
While this district has a number of iconic Parisian images (especially the Eiffel Tower and Les Invalides) and a couple of large parks by these monuments, we particularly enjoy the neighborhood between the two of them—that around the lovely and fun Rue St-Dominque, with all its bakeries, patisseries, butchers, epicurean shops and wonderful restaurants from chefs including Christian Constant and Stephan Jego—the later of whose restaurant, L’Ami Jean, we had a wonderful dinner (see our discussion of Destination Restaurants). We stopped back another evening for dinner at the least formal of Christian Constant’s restaurants, Café Constant (see below)
Then there’s the southern section of the Arrondisement, as around Rue de Varenne and Rue de Grenelle, with their huge, ornate doors and gates (some still Hotel Particulares, most now government offices)—where you can only imagine what is behind them, unless, on the rare occasions, they open and you can get peaks inside. Or, as the case with Hotel Birin, which is now home to Musee Rodin (see our upcoming Paris Museums post), you can pay an admission and be treated to views of the master’s amazing sculptures, as well as the mansion (once the renovations are completed) and the stunning gardens.
Interspersed among these grand relics of the past are large upscale apartment buildings, plus a few still grand churches.
While our time in this quarter was limited, it is such an interesting, and conveniently situated neighborhood that we have already begun to consider it for our next visit to Paris.
Seventh Arrondisment Restaurants
L’Ami Jean (27 Rue Malar)
This wonderful restaurant is run in military-like fashion by a perfectionist chef. At first, we were a bit turned off by our server’s coolness and curtness. Then, after some time in the restaurant, hearing repeated sharp claps of the chef’s hands to signal servers that a dish was ready to be served—and the occasional angry yells when something was not done to his satisfaction–we understood the reason for the staff’s brusqueness. This crisp efficiency was also apparent in the menu. Its very brief descriptions did not begin to describe the dishes (and our server had similarly limited and oblique explanations). We were, however, more interested in the food than in conversations with the staff.
Our first dish of a lobe of seared foie gras did not excite us. Instead of being served with some type of sweet complement that cut the fat of the liver, it was in an austere sauce dominated by the taste of the large poblano chili and the accompanying eggplant. Even the Sauterne we had ordered to complement the foie couldn’t compensate for the chili. Our two main dishes, by contrast, were incredible. Joyce had grilled octopus (an appetizer that was the size of a small main course) with Britanny spices and bacon, feta and a little onion—covered with what appeared to be a smothering amount of grated parmesan that ended up melting into the dish and creating a dish with a subtle taste and a tender (but not mushy) texture. Tom was bowled over by the roast wild pigeon which was cooked to perfection with a mild, slightly gamey taste.
After these two dishes, the disappointment with the foie gras and the service faded into meaningless. Overall, it a wonderful experience (dinner was $166 with a bottle of wine and glasses of sauterne, reservations made via telephone).
Pottaka (4, rue de l’exposition)
Our meal here was our absolute favorite in a trip filled with phenomenal restaurants. We began with a wonderful tempura of octopus on a bed of paper-thin slices of radish, with two dipping sauces: an okay smoked eggplant puree and a citrus vinaigrette that perfectly complemented the octopus. Joyce had black-crusted (with squid ink) cod with fennel, maiche coulis and lemon foam. Excellent! Tom’s dish was just as good: duckling fillet with ginger-spiced apple/pear compote, mashed sweet potato and red onion crisps. While we were sorely tempted by a few desserts, we decided to pass—even though we had to suffer through the barbs of our neighbors who kept extolling the virtues of their choices. We had all these dishes with a bottle of 2012 Domaine des Haut Chassiss. Les Galets, Croz Hermitage.
And one of the most pleasant surprises: Pottaka is incredibly affordable. Indeed it was the least expensive fine dining experience we had in Paris. (Dinner with a bottle of wine cost $130.)
Café Constant (139 Rue Saint-Dominique)
Our meal here was pretty good on balance. One dish (shrimp tartare with citrus foam and spinach) was wonderful, one dish (quail stuffed with foie gras, carrots and smoked bacon) was very good. And two dishes (lobster ravioli in a light cream shellfish sauce, and deep-fried frog legs with watercress puree and light garlic cream) were somewhat disappointing. We were both greatly tempted by another appetizer (tartare of oysters, seabass and salmon with ginger and lemon), which our neighbor diner said was as delicious it looked. We think we would have preferred that to our lobster ravioli and frog legs. Perhaps next time, when we expect to stay in the neighborhood and have a chance to explore even more of its restaurants.
A trip to the wonderful Septime restaurant took us into a neighborhood to which we had only been through once before, on the way to Pere Lachaise Cemetery (with the graves of such notables as Chopin, Balzac, Yves Montand, Simone Signoret and the most popular and decorated of all—Jim Morrison of the Doors). Since we were already this far east, and had no need to revisit the cemetery, we found another nearby destination—the neighborhood of Bercy.
Bercy is already a transportation hub, with its Gare de Lyon train station. It appears that the neighborhood is also attempting to establish itself as a business, sports, leisure, and cultural destination. Its aspiration to build itself into a business destination took a huge leap with the building of the huge, architecturally interesting Ministry of Finance Building and a line of business towers radiating from the Ministry, past the train station. Its sports aspirations are in the process of being realized by the building of a large multi-sports and concert complex into a grass-covered hill. And to spur transportation to and from the business and sports complex, the city is also building a new automated express metro line into the heart of the city.
The area, meanwhile, is already well endowed with parks, with Izsak Rabin Park leading south from the sports complex, directly into the even larger, channel and artificial-waterfall enhanced Bercy Park. Both appear to be quite popular with both older folk and the young (the youngest of whom appear to be particularly drawn to the playgrounds and the waterfall running down the center of a stairway, and the teens especially to the skateboard park.
The cultural aspect is being largely addressed by the Frank Gehry-designed American Center, which houses a concert center and a French film museum and screening center. A short distance further south is the renovated Cours St-Emillion shopping and restaurant district that has been created (along with a theater and cooking school) out of what had been abandoned warehouses and wine cellars.
Paris Bridges and Quais
Paris would not be Paris without the Seine. The city was, as discussed in our blog on the islands, in the middle of the river, on what is now Île de la Cité. Then there are the bookstalls that line the river between Île Saint-Louis and Saint Germain des Pres, the houseboats moored to its docks, the mouches (tourist boats) that regularly cruise the river and, of course, the leisurely walks along its banks.
The river is also a spot for showing off the city’s public art. Take, for example, some of the city’s Ponts, or bridges. Pont Alexandre II is the city’s most beautiful bridge, with its ornate lights, its gilded medallions and the huge, graceful sculptures that line each of the four corners.
Then there’s Pont Bir-Hakeim’s dynamic statue of a horse and rider, poised almost like a graceful ballerina; and the replica of the Statue of Liberty at the center of Pont de Grenelle.
Nor is it just the art on the bridges that span the river. It is also the art that has been created along the river and the sweeping views from its banks and bridges. The huge, dramatic Grand Palais, with sculptures of powerful horses adorning its capitals was designed specifically for its view from the river. So too was the Trocodero. And there there’s the view of Notre Dame from Pont St-Louis and of the Eiffel Tower from Pont’s Alexandre II and especially d’Iena, and of Musee d’Orsay’s original railway station clock.
Then there are the parks (Tuilleries, Trocadero, etc.) and the many, many sights along the river: The Louvre, d’Orsay and the Modern Art Museums, the L’Orangerie, or for those looking for a slightly different view of the city, Les Egouts, the museum dedicated to Paris’ 1,500 miles of sewers.
Passy (16th Arrondisement)
This 18th-century village has long been the home of modern architecture. In the late 19th century, it was one of the homes of Art Nouveau architecture, as with Hector Guirnard’s Castel Beranger, whose front gate and balconies helped lead to a commission to design the entrances to the city’s beautiful Metro stations. By the early 1920s, modernist architecture pioneer Charles-Edouard Jeanneret—better known as Le Corbusier—began designing buildings including the La Roche House, which is now one of the centerpieces of the Fondation Le Corbusier (see our post on the museum for a discussion on the house and on Le Corbusier). The area continued as a center of new architecture through the mid-20th century, as evidenced by many of the building that characterize the neighborhood today.
Passy has more than historic architecture. It also has some remaining mansions, including the old Christophe Edmond Kellerman (Duke of Valmy) hunting lodge, which is now the Marmottan Museum, home to one of the largest collections of Claude Monet and Berthe Morisot Impressionist art in the county.
This, the largest office development in Europe, is framed by La Grande Arche, a huge hollow cube that is home to conference centers, museums and at the top, a viewing platform.
Beyond the entrance, along a central esplanade, lay lines of modern office towers, sprinkled with modern art. And if you look straight down the center of the esplanade, down Pont de Nuilly, you look straight through the center of another prominent Paris arch—the Arc de Triomphe.
The complex, initiated by French President Francoise Mitterrand, is elevated on a multi-story platform that stands above the surrounding neighborhood and offers nice views. While many are traditional office towers, some have interesting designs. One, in fact, looks amazingly like the London Gherkin. Some of the approximately 30 contemporary art pieces that grace the complex are equally interesting.
Then, at the end of the complex, facing the city center, is a reflecting pool graced by dozens of poles with creative tops. Turning around–the Grand Arche, even from this distance, continues to dominate.
Although a business complex may be an unusual touristy destination, a view of and stroll through the complex was well worth the relatively short, 20-minute subway trip. In fact, the trip yielded only one disappointment—and a huge disappointment it was. La Defense is dominated by fast food restaurants. We found only one supposedly fine dining restaurant:
La Safranee Table. While it was impossible to get an outside seat during Friday lunch hour, we did manage to get a seat inside. We endured the worst service we ever had at a restaurant, and a meal that was not much better. It took 20 minutes for us to get the attention of the single, greatly overworked and harried server and another 20 minutes to order. Although wine came relatively quickly, and food only 15 minutes from the time we ordered, the water we continually requested, and the bread did not arrive until after we finished our meals.
Speaking of the meals, Tom’s duck with cherry sauce was so overcooked to be virtually inedible (although the sauce was actually petty tasty). Joyce’s avocado and shrimp tartare turned out to be a few of small avocado slices, with perhaps a dozen tiny shrimp, swimming in a Louis dressing. Absolutely nothing like any tartare we have ever had, or could imagine. Return it? We never saw our server again. It almost seemed that she purposely avoided our lonely inside table by taking an alternate door from the kitchen to the patio on which she spent all of her time. When we finally asked for our check—and finally got our water and bread—she tried to make amends by giving us complementary glasses of champagne (after Joyce scolded her in French, telling her how unhappy we were). A nice gesture, but we would have greatly preferred decent service and decent food throughout the meal.
Bois de Boulogne Park
We want to the park specifically to visit the Frank Gehry-designed Fondation Louis Vuitton. But as we saw the park, we decided to wander around to explore it. The museum, as discussed in our Paris Museum post, is a sight to behold–a huge, aluminum-clad dome covered with glass wings, fronted by a stepped waterfall fed by a wading pool complete with a spurting fountain and a machine for creating a layer of dense fog.
After time exploring the museum, its exhibits and the views from the multi-level rooftop terraces, we explored at least a corner of the large park: A park that is actually an entire family entertainment center. It, for example, has a zoo, an aviary, a greenhouse and a large, very well maintained and very inviting amusement park with dozens of rides, arcade games and concession stands.
It offers boat rides and train rides, concerts at a bandshell and theater productions at an entertainment complex. It has a Korean garden, an example of a traditional Japanese house with educational displays, a floral clock and peacocks strolling the grounds. And for history buffs, it has a tower that was used to house homing pigeons used to deliver messages (at 60 miles per hour) during World War I. And surrounding all these attractions—acres and acres of nicely maintained lawns and forests. A lovely park to discover almost by accident.
Note: Specific discussions of the museums we visited are in separate Paris Museums posts.