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Travel Notes for Paris, March 2005

Nancy Lytle

A week in Paris, March 20 - March 28, 2005

Well, there goes my heart. Paris is such a magnificent and buoyant city. Although it was March, the weather was very fine, with emerging flowers and trees in blossom. Everybody seemed so happy to have the sun on their faces.

For nine nights, I stayed at a hotel in the Latin Quarter, near Notre Dame, a way too-busy area, but --- fun, in a way. Next time in Paris, if I stay in a hotel rather than an apartment, I would book waaay ahead at the Comfort Inn Mouffetard, located on, in my opinion, the most wonderful street in Paris.

Rue Mouffetard, in the 5th arrondissement, is a street famous for its age, character, specialty food shops and wonderful open market. On my own, and with Martha, a friend from Florence, I walked the length of the "Mouff" several times, with leisurely stop-offs for coffee, lunch, browsing.

Paris from Monmartre, 1993, watercolor by Nancy Lytle

Paris from Monmartre, 1993, watercolor by Nancy Lytle

At the lower end of Rue Mouffetard, the fun begins around the square St. Medard, where there are several cafes where one can fortify one's self before the hike up the hill. A fountain in the center starts its cheerful spray at 10am on the dot. The produce markets are scattered in front of the pretty church of St. Medard on the north side of the place. Everything --- fruit, vegetables, flowers --- looks wonderful and fresh. At No.128 Rue Mouffetard, I bought the best roasted chicken (half) of my life, part of which was deliciously consumed on a bench in the little park along the side of the church.

Up the street, there are a number of open-fronted cheese stores with cases proudly displaying lumps of mold-covered bacterial substance that made me, for one, realize that I am in serious need of an education in cheese. Just another reason for a future extended stay in Paris. Intermingled with the cheeses are shops for meat, poultry, charcuterie, fish and so on, all looking first-rate.

Strolling up the hill, one can stop off at numerous old, old bistros for coffee, wine or a meal, and of course, there are examples of ethnic eating --- Turkish, Egyptian, et cetera. The shops for jewelry, arts and crafts and house wares are way too attractive, along with numerous bookstores. At No.89 Rue Mouffetard, I found "Sous Le Soleil," a charming boutique for lovely things from Provence. My granddaughter Miranda, who is currently into twirling, will enjoy the two sun dresses I couldn't resist; they have ruffle-ly full skirts and are made with the colorful Provence fabrics.

Eventually you reach the Place de la Contrescarpe, another delightful square with a fountain in the center. On weekends (at least) this place and the whole of Rue Mouffetard is a pedestrian-only zone---so nice. My favorite bistro on the square turned out to be "La Contrescarpe," officially located at No. 57 Rue Lacepede. Inside, the place is old and comfy, with book-lined walls, various-sized glass-topped tables and leather easy-chairs, plus scattered potted palms. Outside, the terrace area is tops for people-watching with the fountain as a backdrop. Here, a kir costs 4 euro, a glass of house white is 3.50 euro and a verre de Bordeaux is 5 euro.

For one lunch, eaten inside at "La Contrescarpe" in leather-bound comfort, I had the 14 euro fixed menu, from which I chose the Tartare Avocat, a wonderful combo of sliced smoked salmon making a nest, with chunks of dressed, and spanking fresh, avocado nestled inside. My main course was a great, tasty braised chicken quarter laid on top of a plate-full of puffed-up roasted potatoes that had just the right hint of garlic. My friend had a bowl of "La Contrescarpe" onion soup (7 Euros), which she liked very much, but she couldn't keep her fork out of my potatoes. On another occasion, we had the duck confit and the Parisian salad --- both very good.

Above the Place de la Contrescarpe, at 56 Rue Mouffetard, is the Comfort Inn. It's in a typical old building with perhaps five stories, and it's just about the only place to stay directly on this famous street. The place is apparently nearly always completely booked.

Impressions

In Paris, a person can sit down and have a meal at any time of the day or night; that's the function of the brasserie, and sometimes the bistro. Food is expensive, with today's weak dollars, but fresh and delicious in almost all cases. The coffee is to die for; the aroma alone is worth a trip to Paris. There are also many, many wonderful opportunities for take-out food, already cooked or oven-ready.

There are lots of parks, large and small, and children's play areas, especially along the sides of churches; dogs aren't allowed in these public areas. People sit in the parks, talking and reading books.

In the 5th, at least, bookstores are everywhere. At Shakespeare & Company, No.37 rue de la Bucherie, there is a small shelf of used books for 5 euro. When you purchase a book, the clerk stamps the inside front page with the store's logo and the words "Kilometer Zero Paris."

Book stamp from Shakespeare and Company

Book stamp from Shakespeare and Company

The sidewalks are clean and well-paved, with no dog litter as in the past. Little green trash baskets ring every park and place. There is a huge number and variety of city vehicles that roam about day and night, cleaning streets, sucking up dog poop and emptying trash.

Smoking, at present, is still permitted inside restaurants, bars, bistros, brasseries and cafes. Ashtrays are provided. At outdoor tables, smoking also occurs, but there are no ashtrays; they are "not permitted." Surprisingly, American Spirit cigarettes, manufactured in Santa Fe, are available at some tobacco shops. I was told that a smoking ban (inside) will take effect in about six months.

Palais du Luxembourg

The "Matisse: Une Seconde Vie" exhibit at the Palais du Luxembourg was great, and well-managed, featuring a significant number of the artist's later collages and about a dozen paintings. As old Henri once said, "Sans passion, il n'y a pas d'art," and he sure had passion. Admission is 10 euro; the show ends on July 17. The area outside the entrance had two pretty cafes set up, one inside a tent and one in the open air. Leave it to the French to grasp that great art goes well with a cafe creme or une verre de vin blanc.

Restaurants

My friend and I tried two Paris restaurants that are reviewed on Slow Travel. The first, Les Fetes Galantes, was a tiny, intimate place, sort of like a hippy living room from the sixties. Maybe six tables at most, so reservations are necessary. I made an error ordering a "soup" that was essentially a liquid bowl of fois gras. Sooo rich I couldn't finish it. Then, I had sweetbreads, lovely, tender, delicious; this is a dish I haven't had in at least twenty years, so I couldn't resist. Martha had a salad and the duck confit, both of which were very good. The fixed-price menus were average for Paris, the dish presentations were arty, especially dessert. We had a bottle of nicely-chilled Graves for 16 Euros that was totally delicious. Les Fetes Galantes, No.17 rue de l'Ecole Polytechnique, phone 01 43 26 10 40.

The other Slow Travel reviewed restaurant was Le Vieux Bistro, at No. 14 rue Cloitre Notre-Dame, on the north side of the cathedral. We had an OK, and expensive, lunch there one day. The green salads were excellent, le boeuf bourguignon --- well, I wouldn't go down that road again. Just too heavy for lunch, and not all that interesting a version of the classic dish, with a too-prevalent flavor of smoked bacon, very few onions and no discernable mushrooms. The place was cute inside, though, and I liked my broiled orange slices for dessert.

Near my hotel, I became fond of Le St. Severin, a bistro across from the church and on the street of the same name. One night, I had a fantastic plate of three loin lamb chops, broiled-crusty but nicely rare, along with excellent pommes frites, for euro 10.50. A quarter-liter of house wine is 6 Euros. A tasty salade nicoise is 9.10 euro. The waiters at Le St. Severin are especially nice and remembered me after my first visit. The outdoor sitting area is more peaceful and less tourist-flooded than on the other nearby streets.

Final Thoughts

Paris seems such a livable city, with at least a few people in charge who do some creative thinking. Unlike Rome, the Paris infrastructure is, apparently, in good shape. Things work.

I hope to spend a lot more time there in my life.


Nancy Lytle lived in Italy for five years, writing manuscripts for two novels and various travel essays.

© Nancy Lytle, 2005

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