We’ve visited Paris for almost 40 years – ever since we were 22 years old — and it always manages to surprise us. Things we never noticed suddenly appear. There are probably as many ways to “do” Paris as there are ways to make apple pie, and we each have our favorites. It can be difficult to go back, to revisit old haunts, to come to terms with the passage of time, so we paint fresh tableaux with brand new memories.
Here is our recipe for a perfectly romantic five days in the City of Light for veteran visitors. (Our first trip as retirees!)
Pre-departure — Book Les Bouquinistes studio through VRBO, so named as it looks out on the famous antiquarian booksellers in their green painted stalls above the Seine.
As we slip into the center of town on the RER train, I reflect on the range of hotels and small apartments we’ve booked on our many trips and recall our very first Parisian hotel. Perfectly situated in the Châtelet Theater on the river, it was a shabby little no-star walk-up. Breakfast, delivered to your room was included in the pittance we paid. On our first morning, the chambermaid made her entrance, no knocks, no warning, to deliver croissants and cafés au lait. Joe was soaping up in the curtainless shower stall in the bedroom itself. “Bonjour!” she warbled with no hint of embarrassment. Joe’s face was the color of the strawberry confiture and I didn’t stop giggling all day.
We spent a month in a sweet, albeit dark, little five meter by five meter studio in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower during our gap year in 2011, but Les Bouquinistes is now our favorite. It’s chic, bright, efficient, clean, convenient and affordable (under $140 a night). On the ground floor of a 17th century private home looking over the Seine to Notre Dame, it allowed us to walk almost everywhere: the Île St. Louis, the Île de la Cité, the Latin Quarter, the Marais and St. Germain. Unless we inherit a boatload of money and can stay at the Pavillon de la Reine, this is where we’ll return on future visits to Paris.
When mapping our itinerary, we came up with a mix of old haunts and new discoveries. We kept our list brief, leaving plenty of time for relaxing and strolling. Ah, the beauty of visiting a familiar place.
Back to that recipe…
Day one — Arrive from a stay in Iceland with only a two-hour time change and little jetlag. Take an afternoon nap because, why not? Walk across to the Île St. Louis for a delicious French dinner at L’Îlot Vache – a longtime favorite for traditional French specialties. Work off some of the confit de canard and mousse au chocolat by following the lights of Notre Dame across the Île de la Cité and then the Pont Neuf. Head up the Rue Dauphine and slip into Cafe Laurent for an after dinner drink and some live bluesy jazz. You’ll never want to leave.
Day two — Grab croissants (perhaps the best you’ll ever have) around the corner at the neighborhood boulangerie and enjoy a late breakfast in the studio. Wander around Notre Dame find new angles for pictures, and then dress for dinner on the Bateaux Mouches. Touristy, yes, but the food and wines are top-notch and the views of Paris at night incomparable. (It’s something we do each time we visit – whether on our own or with our children. We’ve traced the growing lines on our faces, ever since that first visit in 1978, with these dinner cruises and have a progression of pictures for posterity.)
Day three – Sleep late and leisurely make your way to the Marais for a lunch of crêpes complètes (ham, guyère and egg). Visit the bright, airy Picasso Museum for the afternoon, newly renovated since you visited years ago. Feel the excitement in Paris mount as the evening’s European Soccer Championship approaches. Enjoy goat cheese salads back on the left bank, and have the waiter paint your cheeks with the bleu, blanc, rouge French tricolore. Listen to cries of “Allez les bleus” – go French blue team – all around you, horns blaring, anticipation palpable. Despite the local support for a country that needs good news, Portugal wins with a double overtime goal. Zut, alors!
Day four – Wake up with another round of flaky, buttery croissants and walk to the beginning of the Promenade Plantée. This 3-mile raised, linear greenway cuts across the 12th arrondissement to the Bois de Vincennes park on Paris’ east side and was the inspiration for New York City’s High Line. Leisurely walk back along the Seine and take the recommendation of your landlord, Stéphan. Have a candlelit dinner at Le Reminet, a small neighborhood resto, sip a kir, and savor the fine dining.
Day five – Sleep in and take a bus across the Pont d’Alma to Le Français, a stylish Parisian cafe under a broad red and gold awning, the terrace outlined by a green privet. Arrive early enough to secure a table looking towards the street, the Eiffel Tower perfectly framed. Make your way up the fashionable Avenue Montaigne, past the parade of wealth that is the designer boutiques surrounding the Plaza Athénée hotel. Take your first tour of the Palais Garnier, Paris’ famed Phantom-of-the-Opera house. How could it have taken you so long to visit this masterpiece with its Grand Foyer perhaps more stunning than Versailles’ Hall of Mirrors? Finish your final evening in the City of Light with dinner at Le Train Bleu, the legendary, gilded Belle Époque eatery that looks down over arriving and departing trains. Order the baba au rhum, served with your personal bottle of Saint James to drizzle (or drench) your cake and whipped cream to taste.
Departure day — Before saying au revoir to your favorite world city, promise each other to make plans to return.