As many of my readers are aware, I got married on December 1st. I took a few days off following the wedding but postponed the honeymoon till late January. The reason for this was that I knew I had a business trip coming up to the UK (Windsor, outside of London) and I figured that with my plane ticket paid for, that would be a nice savings for the trip.
When I looked online to check out visas for Filipinos visiting the UK, I saw that visa approval could take up to 6 weeks. Then I checked France and saw that it would take just 3 to 10 days. So I told my wife we’d be going to Paris. She’s never been outside of Asia in her life and I knew that anywhere in Europe would be exciting for her. Yes, the weather would probably suck in January but who cares – it’s still Paris.
The only flaw in my plan was that my flights were HK -> Heathrow, Heathrow -> Charles DeGaulle, CDG -> HK. She would have to fly on her own to Paris and I couldn’t get her on the same return flight as me. As it happens, we saved quite a bit of money by booking her via Amsterdam, and I was able to set a schedule for her that had us arriving at CDG at almost exactly the same time and departing from CDG on flights that were about an hour apart.
The next nerve-wracking bit was the application for the French visa – actually the Schengen visa, good for the entire Euro zone. The French consulate requires one to make an appointment online, and the earliest appointment I could get for her was January 16th – too close to her January 22nd departure date for comfort in my opinion. But in the end, it all worked out.
Now, Anthony Bourdain’s advice for Paris is that people who go there exhaust themselves by trying to do too much. He suggests just getting drunk and eating cheese. Cute, but a bit arrogant as well, coming from someone who has probably been to Paris at least 100 times and will return there at least another 100. For people who get there just once or twice in their lives, you gotta do what you gotta do in order to see the things everyone wants to see. I tried to find a middle ground – an itinerary that would leave us plenty of time for relaxing as well as fitting in the core sightseeing activities.
So on the evening of the 22nd, we met at CDG and took a taxi to our hotel, the Hotel Jardin Le Brea, located right at the border of the 6th and 14th arrondissements. We arrived there around midnight, tossed the bags into the hotel room and went out in search of a late dinner. The first few places we walked into had already taken last orders.
Then we found a cozy spot called L’Atelier (not Joel Robuchon’s place). “A friendly pub with a great atmosphere” is how they describe themselves on their web site – and the description was accurate. I just went with a croque monsieur, I forget what my wife ordered, and we had a cheese plate and a lot of wine. And made friends easily with the people at the tables around us. (Everyone else there was French except for one guy from Morocco.) A nice start to the trip.
On Thursday, following breakfast at the hotel, we took a leisurely stroll through the back streets, looking longingly into the windows of classic boulangeries, patisseries, bucheries, charcuteries and fromageries. We made our way over to the Montparnasse Tower, possibly the only skyscraper in central Paris (not including the Eiffel Tower, of course). You can buy tickets to go up to the 56th floor and from there to the 59th floor rooftop deck, which we did.
From there, we bought Metro passes and made a beeline for the Arc d’ Triomphe. No, we didn’t climb the stairs to the top. Instead we did a leisurely stroll down the Champs D’Elysee. (I can report that, just as in Hong Kong, when you’re out on the town and in need of a toilet, McDonald’s is always there for you.) We stopped into a branch of Paul for some baguettes (jambon and brie for my wife, saucisson for me) and some cake.
Back to the hotel to drop off the results of our shopping and then over to the Eiffel Tower – I’d bought tickets online for 4:30 though this time of year, advance tickets are probably not required. Also this time of year they don’t sell tickets in advance for the top of the tower, just the “2nd floor” due to the possibility of shitty weather and indeed, once there, the booths on the 2nd floor selling tickets to the top were all closed. So we strolled around, got some hot chocolate and found a comfy place to sit. But outside on the deck, it was just too damned windy to stay out there for long.
For dinner that night, I chose Vagenende Brasserie, a brasserie along Boulevard Saint-Germain that’s more than 100 years old and the place where I had my very first meal in Paris. It was every bit as good as I remembered and my wife was delighted with the quality of their classic fare. After dinner, the combination of jetlag and wine was really hitting her, so it was back to the hotel and time for bed.
Following breakfast on Friday, we went to Notre Dame. We then walked around the area a bit, doing some souvenir shopping and then picking up our tickets for the Louvre. (You can buy your tickets in advance but unlike with the Eiffel Tower you cannot print them out yourself and you can’t pick them up from the museum; you have to find a branch of the ticket agency – Virgin’s shop on the Champs D’Elysee used to be the most convenient but that’s gone now. And again, this time of year, the advance tickets probably were not necessary as the line to get in was quite small.)
We had one of our few bad meals of the trip – a cafe chosen at random, a tiny menu that led me to think, “well, if they just have a few things, they must really know how to make them,” but both of our dishes were really poor. It was following this lunch that my headaches with HSBC began.
Anyway, after giving up on the bank, we hit the museum. We saw two of the “big three” – The Mona Lisa (which you could actually get a clear view of, the gallery was not jam packed) and the Venus De Milo. Sadly, for some reason Winged Victory of Samothrace was not on display. We walked around randomly for a couple of hours until our legs started to give out (well, mine anyway). Back outside the museum, there was a Japanese video crew and a life-size Hello Kitty. Before they could stop us, my wife ran out and I was able to grab a few quick shots of our “celebrity sighting.”
Back to the hotel to rest up before dinner. My plan was for us to go to La Coupole, a historic brasserie near our hotel. But it was Friday night, 9 PM, and we hadn’t booked. We were told we could wait at the bar but it would be at least an hour and we were too hungry to wait. So we went a few doors down to Le Dome, another art deco jewel (one Michelin star), where we were served a platter with enough shellfish (at least 20 varieties!) to feed an entire country. Crabs, prawns, langoustines, many types of oysters, mussels, clams, cockles, whelks and stuff I didn’t even know the names of. We didn’t finish it all but we came damned close.
Saturday was shopping day. Actually we started by going to the Palais Garnier and then the rooftop of Les Galeries Lafayette for another magnificent view. Another lunch at another branch of Paul, some browsing at Printemps, and then over to Les Marais for some serious shopping. And then another patisserie where we could sit outside with some amazing cake and coffee before collapsing back at the hotel. Dinner that night was at Le Relais de l’Entrecote – one of its four branches was close to our hotel. The line was out the door but it moved fast. One thing about this place – it’s cheap (by Parisian standards). You pay around 23 Euros for salad, steak, fries and bread. The menu only offers cheese, desserts and wine. The only questions from your server are basically “how do you want your steak cooked” and “what do you want to drink.” I don’t think any wine on the list cost more than 40 Euros.
I had everything planned for Sunday, our final full day. I wanted to start off at Centre Pompidou and finish off with a stroll around Montmartre. Alas, it was not to be. I woke up on Sunday morning sick as a dog. I was showing all of the signs of food poisoning. How or where I got it, I can’t say. My wife certainly didn’t have it and we’d eaten all the same stuff, sharing everything. But I was so sick that I got to the point where I’d just drink some water and then throw that up moments later.
Of course my wife had to eat so I went out with her for lunch. She selected an Italian restaurant called Auberge de Venise. This place seemed to have some history to it – some photos on the wall were from the 1920s when it was an American bar called, I think, Dingo. And the food looked amazing. She had some pasta, that was perfectly cooked. I had to order something and went for a bowl of minestrone. It might have been the best minestrone I’ve ever had but the bowl was the size of my head and I barely made a dent in it. The manager actually seemed quite upset by this but I told him I thought it was amazing but I was ill and really couldn’t eat and he let us escape with our lives.
I went back to the hotel to die some more while my wife walked around Montparnasse one final time. For dinner, I still wasn’t ready to eat. She wanted to try a branch of a chain called Hippopotamus. I was afraid this would turn out to be the Paris equivalent of Outback and, unfortunately, I was correct. I didn’t order anything and the only thing she enjoyed there was the bearnaise sauce. After dinner I picked up some yogurt from a nearby market (nope, couldn’t keep that down either).
Fortunately by Monday morning I was feeling better and we left the hotel early for our flights back to Hong Kong. Yes, it was a damned shame that I was sick for that final day. But the rest of the trip was fantastic – and the best part of it might well have been when my wife turned to me and said, “I know you love me, because you brought me here.” (She did also ask if my company had an office in Paris and if so, could I request a transfer there.)
I do want to add that my second visit to Paris was every bit as amazing as my first, probably even better because this time I wasn’t there alone. And once again, despite the stereotype, I found Parisians to be universally warm, friendly and helpful. It may be that I can speak a little French (albeit with a horrendous American accent) or that I was accompanied everywhere by a beautiful woman (and more than few times she got hit on when I’d leave her alone to go to the toilet). It was every bit as memorable as my first trip there.
I know some of you are probably wondering where all the photos are. I’ve been to Paris before and taken all of the standard shots of buildings and monuments and I think you can find better examples in any guide book. Most of the photos this time are the touristy shots – my wife in front of the Louvre, the two of us on the Eiffel Tower, and so on. Those of you who are friends with me on Facebook can see them there; I’ll spare everyone else. (For those who care about this sort of thing, I did not bring my Nikon D800 with me as I didn’t want to deal with the weight and also the bulk of carrying multiple lenses. I brought my Sony RX-10 as my main camera, and it did a mostly excellent job. I also brought my Sony RX-100 to have something pocket-sized for carrying around at night and that did okay too.)