Jun 17, 2024

Paris: For lasting memories, settle in, and find your own special spots


Street art in the Butte-aux-Cailles

I had mixed feelings when a friend suggested meeting up in Paris just two months before the start of the 2024 Summer Olympics in late July.

Not only would preparations be underway for an expected 15 million visitors - think rising hotel rates, construction of viewing platforms in front of the Eiffel Tower, Metro stations closed and bus routes rerouted due to construction - the city itself would likely be overrun with tourists hoping to get an early start.

But off I went for nine days in late May. Away from the usual tourist sites, the city was not as crowded as I expected. The weather was beautiful.  I loved that it stayed light until early evening. But I felt a bit sad for first-timers who might be disappointed to find many iconic monuments off limits or obstructed by Olympics reviewing stands and ugly orange barriers.

Notre Dame under reconstruction after a fire in 2019

It's times like these that call for seeking out the hidden gems, or better yet, finding your own special spots that can reward you with a memory more lasting than a picture of Notre Dame with a crane next to a reconstructed spire or a partially-blocked Eiffel Tower.

One way to start is by staying in a neighborhood outside the main tourist areas, but with easy public transport to whatever is on you must-see list.

For me, it was an Airbnb in a family home in the Butte-aux-Cailles, once a fenced-in, hill-top village outside of Paris, now a charming residential neighborhood in the 13th arrondissement near the Place d'Italie where several metro lines and buses converge. 

My Airbnb on Rue Villa Daviel

My compact room with private bath and breakfast ($130 per night) was one of three in a house on the Villa Daviel, a quiet lane with street lamps and flower boxes.  From here, I could zip down on the Metro to see the latest exhibit at the Musee d'Orsay, then bask in that relaxed feeling of "coming home" to a neighborhood filled with friendly restaurants, bars and bakeries catering to a local clientele of French apartment dwellers.

Rue Villa Daviel

Helping me get to know the neighborhood was Isabelle O'Leary, a volunteer with Paris Greeters, a group of local ambassadors who donate their time to show visitors around their favorite parts of Paris.

 Isabelle at a neighborhood fountain that dispenses water from an artesian well

We walked for two hours on a sunny morning as she explained how the Bièvre river runs under the streets after being covered up in the 18th century to make room for the expansion of the city of Paris into outlying villages.

Isabelle pointed out an Art Deco neighborhood swimming pool, a secret set of stairs leading to a hilltop viewpoint and street murals by a well-known female artist named Miss. Tic. At the Place Verlaine, the site of the first successful hot air balloon landing in 1783, she pulled a plastic cup from her purse so I could have a drink from an artesian well that dispenses fresh drinking water.

Across from my Airbnb was La Petite Alsace - a working-class housing estate of half-timbered houses built in 1913 linked to industrial sites such as the Gobelins Tapestry Factory which supplied the court of the French monarchs. We continued strolling through the Sunday outdoor farmers market, and over a stop for coffee in the Parc Montsouris, we talked about our mutual interest in travel and her upcoming plans for a trip to Japan. 

La Petite Alsace

After a few days in the Butte-aux-Cailles, I moved to the Hotel Du Levant, a long-time favorite hotel near Place St. Michele in the heart of the Left Bank.

Tourists outside Shakespeare & Company bookstore on the Left Bank 

The two areas couldn't be more different. While there were virtually no tourists in the Butte, St. Michele swarmed with visitors, attracted by its location on the Seine River, across from Notre Dame, and dozens of cheap restaurants advertising onion soup, crepes and pizza. This is a fun and convenient area for exploring, but not one to seek out for an authentic Paris dining experience. I was surprised, then, to find two made-for-the-memory book gems just a few blocks out of the fray.

Searching Trip Advisor and various blogs for a casual wine bar, I found 5e Cru, a few steps away from the backside of Notre Dame, and a block away Le Tour D”argent, one of the most expensive restaurants in Paris. 

5e Cru on Rue Cardinal Lemoine

5e Cru is tiny cave manger (wine bar that serves food) in the 5th arrondissement. There were only a few tables scattered among shelves and boxes of bottles. But no reservations seemed necessary, at least when I showed up at 7 p.m.

I chatted a while with Beatrice, the friendly wine steward/waitress. We decided on a beautiful veggie quiche with roasted vegetables, and two excellent wines by the glass. Business had been slow in May, she said. While the restaurants around St. Michele were packed, there were just two other customers here, leaving her time for a stranger to feel appreciated and remembered. 

“Merci, Carol,” she said when I left. Dinner and two glasses of wine came  to $30. I vowed to come back.

More memorable than a five-star restaurant was the intimate dinner a friend and I and another German guest had with Catherine, a Frenchwoman in her 60s, who hosts guests in her home via the website Eatwith.com.

Eatwith works a little like Airbnb, only for dining rather than spending the night. Hosts post a menu for a proposed meal, tell a little bit about themselves, and post the price and available dates. Guests then send a request, pay in advance by credit card and show up at the agreed-upon time and day.

Dinner with Catherine

Catherine, a retired fashion industry exec whose father was a chef, hosted the three of us in her Right Bank apartment just across the bridge from the Île Saint-Louis near the Sully Morland metro stop and a short walk from the Bastille.

Jazz and candles set the mood for a five-course feast, and of course good wine and conversation. 

We chatted over appetizers of homemade sardine pate and cucumbers with pesto and olives, then moved to the table for white asparagus soup and a fish dish with tomatoes, peas and garlic. Next came five different cheeses and a homemade strawberry tart.

The meal - prepared with all organic, in-season ingredients - was the best I had the whole trip. And at $57 each it was a good value. 

Walking back to my hotel after dinner, my thoughts drifted back to the evening spent listening to the soothing voice of beloved French singer Françoise Hardy. Catherine introduced us to her music as we chatted about politics, travel and food.

Hardy died at 80 shorty after I arrived back in Seattle. I read the tributes in the New York Times and Washington Post. Then I put her 1962 hit, Tous le Garçons e les Filles (All the Boys and Girls), on my playlist, and wrote Catherine a note thanking her for the memory.

1 comment:

  1. How odd? I'm on my way to Paris today, and our friend Bob Payne told me you'd written about the city. He sent me a like to this post, which I read with much interest. I've got no insights about Paris, and your blog offered plenty. I can't want to visit the places you did. I'm saddened that I won't get to listen to Francoise Hardy. I love jazz. But I'm certain I'll find jazz singers are various places around the city. Thanks so much for giving me things to consider as I head to the "City of Lights" today.