Saturday, 6 September 2008

Dining out with a difference in Paris.

Finding a restaurant in Paris is never hard, but trying to find a good restaurant is perhaps a little more of a challenge. Being the most tourist-frequented spot in the world means that restaurant owners can afford to be slack, as there will never cease to be a supply of new and unaware clients. Thankfully, however, for every lazy restaurateur in Paris, there is a fabulous, innovative one. Going to a great restaurant absolutely compliments a day’s outing, but there are also establishments in Paris which can be the outing themselves. Here are a few of the more eccentric places which will offer you more than just a meal, guaranteed.

In the 4th Arrondissement, just around the corner from the Pompidou Centre is a joint called Dans Le Noir. Dinner here is really just that. The dining room is pitch black, and guests are asked to surrender anything that could generate light- watches, cell phones and so on- at the door way. You can literally see nothing. While this might be disconcerting to begin with for you, it has absolutely no bearing on the staff, who are all blind. They will guide you to your table (and anywhere else you may need to go during your meal) bring you your food and help you experience their world for the duration of your meal. The idea of Dans Le Noir is both to help sighted people understand the day to day existence of a blind person, and to heighten (or at least alter) the diner’s perception of the food they are eating. Without sight, the food becomes more fragrant, more powerfully spiced; more present. The diners often believe the meals are made up of far more complex ingredients than they actually are, simply because they focus on the act of tasting so carefully. Dans Le Noir is open Monday to Saturday for lunch and dinner and Sunday for Brunch; cheekily, Tuesday night is singles night- a true blind date!

If you are more interested in audible rather than visual (or lack thereof) stimulation, try
Bel Canto, also in the 4th Arrondissement. Here, dinner is as dramatic as an opera- complete with opera singing waiters. Dressed to the nines, the waiters will perform their standard duties, and suddenly burst into eccentric, elegant song. Not so much service with a smile as service with a serenade, Bel Canto is an absolute must, particularly if you are a fan of Italian food. Importantly, Bel Canto’s staff are all students from Parisian music schools, so you don’t need to worry about being forced to endure metro-quality performances! The restaurant is open every night from 8pm.

If you have children with you who are less than charmed with the idea of dinner ‘en famille,’ a good idea is to take them to La Maison Nicolas Flamel. Found in the 3rd Arrondissement, the building is the oldest in Paris, and belonged to the famous alchemist. A real person, the kids will be interested because Nicolas features in none less than Harry Potter as the inventor of the Philosopher’s Stone. It is always fun to find the links between history and story, and there is no doubt that Nicolas did TRY to create such a product…..his success is perhaps less certain. The food is very traditional French food at a reasonable price, particularly at lunch time, when you can get a ‘formule du midi’ for 18.50euros.
So whether you are after heightened taste-sensation, dinner and a show or a little bit of magic, dining in Paris can adapt to your needs. But don’t stop here, the left bank has some real gems to offer also, which I will explore and divulge at a later date….

Dans Le Noir- 51 Rue Quincampoix, 75004.
Tel. 01 42 77 98 04

Bel Canto- 72 Quai de L’Hotel de Ville, 75004.
Tel. 01 42 78 30 18

Maison Nicolas Flamel- 51, rue de Montmorency 75003.
Tel. 01 42 71 77 78

Hotel or Apartment? The Eternal question.

Paris is a city of plenty, and if you are only visiting for a short period of time, dealing with what is on offer takes some serious planning. Before even considering the museums, the transport, the restaurants or the shows, one has to make the all important decision of where one is going to stay.

Having somewhere relaxing, comfortable and central is essential to optimising your time, and maintaining your sanity while dashing around the City of Lights. For people who are past their backpacking years, there are two main choices; staying in a hotel, or renting an apartment . Which you choose can have a huge influence upon your stay.

Staying in a hotel seems, all things considered, the easy option. You can be sure of the quality, especially if staying in a well known chain; you know that your bed will be made each day, and that the room will stay clean. There is always going to be breakfast ready when you want it, and the front desk will (hopefully) be able to answer any questions you may have about the city. If you are only planning on staying a few days, and plan to spend all your time (including every meal) out and about, I think hotels are the way to go.

For a longer visit, however, hotels can be a bit, well, sterile. The fact that you are just a small cog in a big machine becomes all too obvious, and when you are spending some serious time in one place, it is nice to be able to feel more at home. Staying in an apartment is perfect in this situation. You can take time out, stay in for an evening, and, most importantly, have more than one room to call your own! It is certainly very nice to snuggle down on a sofa with a glass of yummy French wine and a platter of cheese after a day at the Louvre, rather than having to put on your glad rags and head out to once again choose from (and decode) a foreign menu!

Price-wise, it really depends what sort of hotel or apartment you would be after. If you are a party of 4, it is almost guaranteed that a (nice) apartment will be a site cheaper than a hotel- when I first moved to Paris on the skin of my teeth my three friends and I actually discovered renting an apartment was even cheaper than a youth hostel! Apartments also cut costs in a number of ways- cooking, laundry, entertainment. Obviously, there is a far higher degree of ‘do it yourself’ when staying in a home, but that is what makes it so much more homely, right?

Service is certainly something hotels pride themselves on, and they really are great at it. Having teams of people at your disposition to suggest activities or spots to visit can really help you, if you aren’t sure where to start. The only downside I have experienced in that area is that the teams of people mean that you are never assisted by the same person twice. If you want something specially catered (a private art tour perhaps, or a cooking course, wine tasting?) things become a lot more complicated. Most apartment rental companies are equipped with a one-man concierge service, who can sort things out for you from beginning to end. The personal touch, cheesy as it may sound, goes a long way.

But in my opinion, the best thing about staying in an apartment is the location. If renting someone’s home, you will be in an area of Paris which is not directly on the tourist map. Being a small city nothing is very far away, but staying in a quartier with its own special ambiance gives you a more real, valid and thrilling impression of the French capital.

So when the choice to visit Paris has been made, take some serious time to consider what you would like to get out of your stay- how many people are coming? Are you all going to want to do the same things? Will you want to eat out every night? Where in the city would you like to be? Hotels are certainly reliable, but apartments allow you an opportunity to live like a Parisian, even if only for a week.

Shopping...the true Parisian pass time.

Shopping is something Paris is renowned for, and rightly so. There are endless options of fantastic places to shop, especially if you have time to wander further afield than the Champs Elysées. In fact, I think that the best shopping Paris has to offer comes in the form of small, local boutiques featuring unique French brands rather than the big glitzy shops of international labels. Obviously, there are shops like this all over Paris, but when you are pressed for time it’s a good idea to head to an area where you can find a mixture of things in a small geographical area- this leaves more time for trying things on!

A top area is undoubtedly the Marais in the III Arrondissement, particularly Rue Francs Bourgeois. On this charming narrow street which epitomises Parisian architecture, you can find a nice mix of clothing stores, gift stores, jewellery stores, make up stores, shoe stores and then some! American Retro, near the Rue des Archives end of the road is aimed at the younger generation, but upstairs they have some simple but elegant casual pieces. Further down the road is my favourite, Les Petites, a French label that has something for everyone, and uses breath taking fabrics and colours. Be sure to look in both shops (they are next door to each other) as they do stock different things. On the corner of Rue du Temple and Rue Francs Bourgeois there is a Paul & Joe sister and man which, although not French, is certainly worth a look.

If you are after gifts, there is a Muji on this street too (again, 2 shops next door to each other with different stock) and if you haven't been into one of these before, you must go, just to be wowed by the simple yet useful designs. The beanbags, as strange as this may sound, are a whole new world

Makeup shops, mainly big chains, abound towards the end of Francs Bourgeois; Mac, Body Shop and Occitane are all within a stones throw of one another.

If you find yourself on the left bank of the Seine, around Saint Germain, it becomes clear pretty quickly that you are in shopping heaven. Though sometimes rather expensive, the shops here are irresistible, and there are certainly some more affordable things on offer. On Boulevard Saint Germain, there is a Shu Uemura makeup store; the staff are very helpful so go in, it's not as scary as it looks! If you turn down Boulevard Raspail, you will come across a series of lovely shoe shops, my favourite being Jonak, a chain store with gorgeous stock. The designs are simple yet wonderful, and the prices are so reasonable that you can buy two pairs of shoes without feeling guilty!

If you head west from here, you can stroll up Rue Grenelle, a veritable treasure trove. The street features two designers from the famous Antwerp 6, making it more like visiting art galleries than commercial centres, so absolutely worth a peak. Sonya Rykiel's shoes are out of this world, but the most fascinating store has to be Martin Margiela. A small white awning is all that mark the entrance to the shop, so keep your eyes peeled. Inside the white continues, right down to the staff who all don white lab coats. The clothes, while not necessarily something you would wear every day, are beautifully designed and made. The men’s section is particularly impressive.

Rue Saint Honore, a big long street which runs parallel to Rue de Rivoli, is an absolute must. There is everything you could imagine, and some. The pick of the bunch is the Colette store, on the corner of Rue du 29 Juillet. This shop, which sells clothes upstairs, coffee and lunch downstairs and everything else on the main floor is like stepping into a magazine. Don't miss out on the spray on makeup, or the mix-to-taste perfume counters!

If you are after smaller things, like gifts and jewellery, a great spot is the Passage du Grand Cerf, just down from Rue Montorgueil in the II Arrondissement. This passage, which is all glamorous art deco, is at its most stunning in winter time when it is decorated with fairy lights and a red carpet- don't forget the camera! Each little shop in the passage has something unique to offer, so take your time wandering around.

The list could really go on and on, Paris shopping is truly limitless! These are certainly some good places to get you started though, and if you are a real shop-a-holic, you can always get a personal guide to cater to your every need!

Friday, 22 August 2008

The Country-folk at the Heart of Every Parisian

When I first arrived in Paris, my French teacher at La Sorbonne said something which, as the time, struck me as rather odd. She claimed that, despite having moved into big cities, the French are all still rustic country-folk (a la Middle Ages), and proud of it.

The longer I have spent in Paris, the more the truth of this statement has struck me. Everyone knows that France is a very traditional country; only this year has opening on a Sunday become common (amidst much resentment). It is often this traditionalism that frustrates visitors unfamiliar with the rules and regulations (the congees annuelles in August perhaps the most obvious example of this) But at the same time, I believe that it is this rustic ‘country-ness’ which sets Paris apart from the other metropolitan centres of Europe, and adds a charm that cannot be found anywhere else.

Food, and the process of shopping for it perhaps illustrates this point best. Arriving in Paris, do not expect to find the huge supermarkets that satisfy every need as anglophones tend to be used to. Sure, there are Monoprix and Franprix supermarkets (amongst others), but these places are targeted more at the staples, it is just not normal to buy fresh produce here, and why would you, when there is so much else on offer?

As it has been for centuries in France, so it is today in Paris; speciality stores reign supreme. Yes, it is more time consuming, but the service, the produce, and interacting directly with the actual owner (or some relation of the owner) of the enterprise is a nice break from the halogen-lit isles of the hyper-markets we are used to.

The situation can be daunting, but I implore you, fear not! 99% of the time, ask for help and you will receive it; tell them what wine you are going to drink, what sort of cooking you are going to do, or who you are cooking for, and you will receive sound advice. It is wise to head to the shops at a quiet time (not just as the working day ends); this way you avoid a long queue of impatient Frenchmen listening to your every word.

A good place to shop for food is Rue Montorgueil, in the 2nd Arrondissement. There is everything you could ask for here, and some. The street is pedestrian, and also non-French speaker friendly, although this comes with a price; it is certainly not the cheapest place in Paris to shop. Sensei, the coffee shop at the cut of Montorgueil and Tiquetonne is a wonderful place to stop for a caffeinated pick-me-up.

North-east of Montorgueil, on Rue Saint Denis, the prices are considerably cheaper, but the area considerably rougher. For something in between, head to Rue Rambuteau (east of Beaubourg). This spot has the added advantage of turning into Rue Francs Bourgeois, one of the best clothes shopping streets of Paris!

But for the best ‘rural Paris’ experience, you have to go to an outdoor market. The biggest and best is on Sundays at Bastille, called ‘La Marche de la Creation’ (open until 2pm). Here you can find everything, from fish to fruit to flowers to fantastic buskers. The prices are absurdly cheap, and the food is all delicious. My top pick? The dried strawberries and the Halvah, sold at a store in the central row, about 100 meters from the Bastille end. At the market, you can find all the trademark French shops: fromageries, boucheries, and boulangeries as well as some less French items, such as a lovely Paella stand and wonderful homemade fresh Italian pasta. The best thing about the markets is that everyone is willing to give you a little try before you buy!

So instead of seeing it as a chore, take an afternoon to do your shopping- wander around slowly and really think about the processes behind the final product you are buying; it makes dinner that night all the more satisfying!

Enchanted at Versailles

If you are planning on visiting Paris, and have a limited amount of time in the city, visiting Versailles can seem like a daunting day trip. It is an RER ride, or about a 45 minute drive from the city, and it really does mean abandoning any hope of visiting anything else that day. Once you get there, however, you realise you would have been crazy to pass it up.

This weekend, I made my third and favourite trip to Versailles. I have yet to even enter the building, instead satisfying myself with walking the 2000 acres of land, rowing boats on the lake and pretty much marvelling at the epic scale and precision with which Versailles was designed. Everything in the gardens is aimed at making the grounds more imposing, more fit for a king. The avenues taper ever so slightly, as does the lake itself, enhancing the perspective, making the land seemingly endless. The land is not only a hill, it is formed so that the Chateau itself sits on the top of a perfectly formed arc, giving it an awe-inspiring sense of balance. The trees, identically trimmed with giant wooden stencils, all draw your eye towards the centre of the Chateau. Versailles is a lesson in perspective drawing, except it isn’t a drawing, it’s really there.

My last visit exposed me to a whole new dimension of this fact. On Saturday, I attended the ‘Grands Eaux Nocturne’ and got to experience the gardens, and the Chateau, by night.

The experience is meant to be magical, and with such a setting, how could it not be? But tasteful extras presented at the ‘Grands Eaux Nocturne’ really turned the experience from beautiful to fantastical. The main attraction is, of course, the fountains. Add to the fountains the beautiful music which is played throughout the garden, and the scented bubbles appearing from nowhere, and the feeling that you are experiencing a taste of the long-gone French Royals’ nightly escapades is unavoidable.

What blew me away the most? The famous fountain of Neptune rising out of the water in a horse-pulled chariot. The beauty of the design is accessible when dry, but the gorgeous effect running water has on the movement of the sculpture is beyond compare.

A very close second was the little grotto to the right (when facing the Chateau) where a simple but breathtaking scene was set up. At the centre of the grotto is a lovely statue of the three muses, one reaching her hand skyward. The statue is bathed in green light from a laser, into which mist was being blown, creating a layer of green, marbled cloud at the muses’ outstretched fingertips.

The fireworks finale is also very fun, and closes the evening with a thrill. The explosions take place over the lake, and are set in time to music, as well as fire balls, which shoot from the lawn that runs the entire length of the Promenade Royale. Don’t forget to look back at the chateau during the show, where you will see all the light reflected in the fountains leading up to it, as well as in it’s thousand’s of windows.

The only shame about going to Versailles at night is that you cannot experience the grandeur of the place in quite the same way; what you can see is a little bit limited. Luckily, the fountains and music are turned on during the day time too- every Saturday and Sunday until the end of October. Paying a bit extra to visit the gardens in this lively state is absolutely worth it.

If you want something a little more unique from your Versailles experience, look out for shows being performed, there; what a venue! The Autumn season will feature the Bartabas Academy of Equestrian Arts. For it’s third show at Versailles, the troupe will invoke Shakespeare’s Macbeth through a tribute to Japanese filmmaker Kurosawa. The show feature’s 70 horses and 40 artists/acrobats. An interesting fusion, no doubt, and something that will probably get me out the Chateau for one last time!

Sunday, 17 August 2008

Get out of the Underground!

Most people who come to Paris assume that they are going to get around by catching the metro- and why not? It’s fast, cheap, and, once you have a map easy to understand. The only draw back (aside from the heat in summer) is that taking the metro means that you spend a large proportion of your visit to Paris- the most decorated city in the world- underground. Having the opportunity to use overland transport can really allow you to see areas and aspects of Paris you would otherwise miss out on.

The bus services that run through Paris are great- they are frequent, reliable, and safe. The only problem is the bus map, which shows all the routes, but neglects to mention exactly what roads the buses run on. Once you know, the bus stops are close and easy to find; they normally can be found on the busiest roads, the existence or lack of a bus lane being a dead givaway. The other thing to keep in mind is the one way system- if you can only find the bus going north, the bus going south is probably one block over. Some of the most useful buses are as follows:

The number 38: Runs south from Gare du Nord straight through the centre of Paris, stopping at the Pompidou centre, Hotel de Ville, Notre Dame and Jardin Luxembourg. The bus runs down Rue Saint Martin until the Porte Saint Martin, then down rue Baubourg. On the left bank the 38 can be found on Boulevard Saint Michel. This bus is great, as you get a full vista of the river.

The number 24: Starting at Gare Saint Lazare, this bus stops outside the Musee D’Orsay, then all along the edge of the left bank, allowing you to see all of the river front, until it crosses at Gare d’Australitz, where you can disembark to go to Jardin des Plantes.

The number 73: Running on the opposite side of the river, (Rive Droite) from the Musee D’Orsay straight to the Arc de Triomphe.

it is good to know that in any of the bus stops there is a detailed map of where the buses run and stop, and you can always get off at the next stop if you miss out, they are never far apart! Metro tickets can be used on the bus, and are valid for an hour, so you can transfer.

The second fantastic form of overland transport is, of course Velib. Riding around Paris is the best way to see it; you can get places quickly, you can stop whenever you want, and your feet won’t be sore before you even arrive at the museum! There are Velib stands every 200meters all over central Paris, normally off the main roads (but just around the corner). The bikes are sturdy and very easy to ride, with the added bonuses of bells to let people know you are coming, and baskets, to put all your goodies in. To rent a Velib, all you need is a credit card with a chip, and a balance of at least 150euros, which is frozen in your account as security for the duration of your rental. A bike for a day costs 1euro, and for the week costs 5. The aim, of course, is that you only use the bike for less than ½ an hour; if you keep the same bike for longer than that, you are charged 1euro for ½ an hour.

Some useful tips; if you get to a Velib stand that is full, do not just ride off in search of another (especially if you are almost at your ½ hour limit). If you enter the code on your Velib rental card, you will get an automatic 15 minute extension, allowing you to find another stand. A map will also appear, telling you the nearest stops and how many free spaces can be found at each.

Make sure, before selecting your bike, that it is in good condition- check the breaks, the tires and the gears. There is an unspoken Velib code in the city- if the seat is facing the wrong way, there is something not quite right with the bike.

It is far less complicated if you have a week Navigo pass for the metro (and buses). You can load your Velib subscription onto it, and then getting a bike is only a matter of swiping it over the purple sensor at the bikes attachment point.

So consider getting out of the metro while you are in Paris; buses are reliable and relaxing, and Velib’s fun and easy (not to mention safe thanks to all the bike lanes). Cruising the streets of Paris and seeing where the journey is taking you will help you have a far more complete and filling image of the beautiful city!

Friday, 15 August 2008

Some Smaller (but still Charming) Parisian Museums

This Sunday it was cold and cloudy in Paris, the perfect weather for wandering around a museum. However, being August, it is also peak tourist season, and the idea of being in line for hours to get into the Louvre or the Musee D’Orsay really didn’t appeal to me. I decided I really wanted to try out something smaller and less known. Small museums are everywhere in Paris, as are institutes that offer petite, high quality exhibitions. I decided to visit two fabulous spaces, the Maison Europeene de la Photographie and the Foundation Cartier.

The exhibition on currently at the Maison Europeene is ‘Annie Leibovitz; A Photographer’s Life’ and is truly breath-taking. The three-story exhibit is packed full of the classic Leibovitz’s, from her time at Vanity Fair and Rolling Stone, but also comprises of personal photos of her friends and family. As Leibovitz herself said ‘I don’t have two distinct lives, I have one life, and personal photos have the same importance in it as professional photos.’

While the glamour and beauty of photos of Brad Pitt, Johnny Depp and The Trumps is certainly fascinating, it is seeing these personal photos which really makes the exhibition exciting and unusual. The photos depict two very difficult and moving events in Leibovitz’s life; the death of her father, and the death of her lover Susan Sontag. Black and white photos of a sick, almost unrecognisable Sontag juxtaposed with glossy, full colour photos of sparkling Nicole Kidman makes Leibovitz’s loss all the more poignant. As a viewer it makes one aware of the generosity and privilege of being able to pass from the ‘famous’ to the ‘private’ realm of Leibovitz’s work.

The Foundation Cartier is honouring the 10 year anniversary of French sculptor Cesar Baldaccini’s death. The artist is perhaps best known in Paris for his giant bronze ‘Pousse’ (Thumb) sculpture in La Defence. His obsession with the thumb (which is a cast of his own) stems from his amusement at the role of Caesar’s thumb in deciding the fate of Gladiator’s; a simple thumbs down meant immediate death. Certainly more light hearted than the Leibovitz exhibition, the sculptures on offer at Foundation Cartier are all quirky and amusing- downstairs you can find a series of compressed cars, beautifully spray painted in vibrant colours, as well as a video of the man himself, wandering junk yards in the 60’s, smoking a pipe.

Even if the exhibit was lacking, which this one certainly is not, the Foundation Cartier is worth a visit just to see the beauty of the building itself. Surrounded by a small wooded area dotted with Cesar’s works, the building feels very far away from the Parisian metropolis. The entire ground floor is glass, allowing you to see straight through the building, drawing attention to the delightful potted tree- an enormous chestnut in a multi-coloured, tiled pot!

Both these exhibits are certainly worth a visit, and as they are small you can easily visit them in an hour or an hour and a half. If not quite as monumental as the Mona Lisa or Van Gogh’s self portrait, it is certainly nice not to be rushed along, and to spend as long as you would like looking at a work!

Annie Leibovitz- A Photographer’s Life: 18 June - 14 September 2008

Maison Europeene de la Photographie 5/7 rue de Fourcy - 75004 Paris

Cesar: 8 June- 26 October 2007

Foundation Cartier 261 Bvd Raspail 75014