Dispatch From Paris: Finding Romance in Museums and Cafés
By Brian Taylor, Contributing Writer, August 1, 2018
You can only do so much with 36 hours in Paris. In fact, the New York Times Travel Section’s famous column has taken to dividing Paris into “36 Hours” on the Left Bank, or the same on the Right Bank. My only previous trip to Paris was a solo exploration some fifteen years ago in winter. As a twenty-something American in the era of “Freedom Fries,” with little command of the French language, I couldn’t escape the feeling that the City of Love did not quite love me.
On my recent return, I knew that with just three days, this time in summer, and with a lover on my arm, I didn’t want to invest time in the Louvre — I was here to find out, what is the romance of Paris? Whether it was the perfect weather of early summer, the companionship, or the passage of time (it certainly was not an improved command of the language), I found Paris to be more welcoming, and yes, romantic, than I had before.
The Marais, a fashionable district with a rich history, is home to hip restaurants, galleries, shops, LGBTQ businesses, and a Chinatown. It’s the perfect neighborhood in which to hang one’s hat. Hôtel Jules & Jim is a creatively designed boutique hotel with a welcoming bar and warm, English-speaking staff, and provided an ideal home away from home.
We immediately head to nearby Stohrer, the oldest pâtisserie in Paris. On pedestrian rue Montorgueil, near Les Halles in the second arrondissement, the busy, tiny shop dating from 1730 teems with pastries just as they have made them for centuries. The canelé and financier are delicious.
It happened to be the first Sunday of the month, when many museums are free of charge, including the Musée d’Orsay. It’s a crowded day at the museum, as one expects, but this museum specializing in Impressionism can accommodate the volume better than most. Also free on this day are Musée Picasso and the Centre Pompidou.
Back in the Marais, a quick scan of search-and-discovery apps like Yelp and Foursquare led us to L’Aller Retour, an unpretentious, intimate steakhouse. A starter of escargot, nestled in their shells with parsley, garlic, and butter, preceded a superbly flavored côte du boeuf accompanied by a heavenly wine — from a selection unfamiliar to this American oenophile — all easy to order from friendly, English-speaking hosts.
As we wander the city, we find lunch options equally as glorious. In the 9th arrondissement of Paris, across from extravagant Palais Garnier (the opera house made infamous in Gaston Leroux’s novel), Café de la Paix has a stunning interior decor, but we snagged a coveted table outside on the terrace and savored a decadent Croque Madame, lush with béchamel, and complimented by a sharp green salad. It’s a great place to people watch and watch the city go by.
Much of the romance of Paris seems to be found in its ubiquitous cafés, where residents and visitors alike linger with aperitifs (Aperol Spritzes are all the rage). Canal Saint-Martin is a Brooklyn-trendy spot in northeastern Paris surrounding an eighteenth century waterway and iron-clad bridges with pairs of lovers and groups of students ensconced along the sidewalk overlooking the peaceful canal. La Marine is a solid choice for a traditional bistro experience, excelling at quintessential classics like silken duck foie gras mi-cuit and crème brûlée.
A climb up the bell towers of Notre-Dame Cathedral, timeless in its Gothic splendor, is an opportunity to mingle with the famously grotesque gargoyles. The ascent isn’t overly strenuous, nor is the wait (you reserve an entry time at kiosks on the north side of the cathedral). From there, the neighborhood of Saint Germain des Près is steps away, and worth a leisurely stroll, as it competes with the Marais for density of history, art galleries, boutique shops, and literary cafés.
Craving European Flat, or Bélon, oysters rare on American shores, we happened upon Le Bar à Huîtres Saint Germain, in the 5th arrondissement. While the vernacular of their oyster menu was impenetrable to this foreign ostreaphile, the welcoming server happily took time to clearly explain the selection. The oysters were terrific, and the lobster bisque ethereal, but we envied our neighbors’ towering (and undoubtedly very expensive) grand platter of crustaceans so impressive, passersby stopped to ogle through the windows.
Another climb worth making is to the spectacular view from the top of the Arc de Triomphe, at the western end of famed Champs-Élysées. You might reward yourself with a dip into nearby Ladurée, where savvy lovers of macarons, those sweet meringue-based cookies in myriad flavors, queue for one of the city’s most famous selections.
Our three days of romance in Paris might have climaxed with a visit to the Musée Rodin, near the Varenne metro stop, which displays many of his most notable works, including The Thinker, The Kiss, and my favorite, the beautiful The Age of Bronze, a male nude which caused a scandal when it was premiered in 1877. Van Gogh completists note that three of his paintings are among the collection. The museum includes grounds with gardens and a small lake, Rodin’s expressive sculptures scattered throughout.
Finally, dinner at the Michelin-recommended La Condesa, a small new restaurant in the 9th arrondissement with a Mexican-born chef, serving an acclaimed tasting menu. Reservations essential, the service was quite welcoming. An to opportunity dine in close proximity of overly perfumed well-to-do Parisians, as well as visiting foodies, the tasting menu was a series of surprises, including tart in-season rhubarb, and chicken with a subtle mole sauce. But, if given a do-over (and hopefully I will be), I would stick to the more tried-and-true Parisian fare at those cafés with their carafes of cheap wine and Aperol Spritzes. That’s where the romance is.
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Cover: A view of Paris from the top of Notre Dame through the eyes of a gargoyle; photo: Brian Taylor / ZEALnyc.