Immersive Travel Experience Paris

This destination, which I call Immersive Travel Experience Paris, is the 1st of Four in the France and Italy itinerary. The details related to planning for this destination and the others on the France and Italy circuit are described in The France and Italy Travel Planning post.

Paris is the City of Light, the City of Romance, and my favorite city in Europe. Steeped in history, it is the birthplace of Gothic Architecture. And it has a great variety of architecture, like eye candy throughout the city. There are examples from the French Renaissance, the Classical Revival, Belle Époque, Art Nouveau, and rounded out by the 20th century Art Deco style. The city is beautifully laid out with wide boulevards, dotted with architectural wonders inspired from these periods, waiting to be discovered, and enjoyed. Immersive Travel Experience Paris explores many of these delights.

Beyond history and architecture, Paris is known for a caliber of cuisine found in few places around the world. French cooking is an art form, and French food can be a work of art. Ingredients, presentation and service blended together to make for a dining experience that is distinctly French. Paris is a city where chefs are revered, and it is respectable to be a professional waiter. The many dimensions of Food is at the core of French culture. And Immersive Travel Experience Paris explores the variety of edible art found around the city.

Arrival

We traveled with another couple on this occasion. The direct flight from my home base of Atlanta was a non-eventful (the very best kind) affair that took about 9 hours. The transatlantic flight was fairly endurable with bulkhead seating in what Delta calls their Economy Comfort section. Eating awful food, drinking horrible wine, and watching movies on a tiny outdated screen is how I passed the time. Transportation is what we endure to have an immersive travel experience at our destinations.

We deplaned in a herd, and stampeded to passport control and baggage claim. I find international entry and departure to be more organized and efficient in European airports. And it was the case on this particular occasion, with multiple fast-moving queues at passport control. There was relatively little interaction with the passport control officer, merely a quick stamping of the passports, and we were on our way.

We headed to the ground transportation section of the arrival flight deck with our luggage in tow. The objective was to find a taxi sufficiently large to carry four adults and our luggage. We were directed to a waiting van by an airport employee. Another point of efficiency at European airports is grabbing a taxi. And we set off for central Paris, working our way through mid-afternoon traffic. We arrived at our 1st Arrondissement boutique hotel an hour later, and began our immersive travel experience in Paris.

Settling in

The boutique hotel Le Relais des Halles is located on a quiet, pedestrian only street in the heart of central Paris, the 1st Arrondissement. It was the perfect location for a four night stay, in walking distance to all of the things we wanted to see and do. The taxi driver was able to drop us off in front of the hotel in spite of the fact it’s located on a pedestrian only street. Taxis and service vehicles are exempted.

This boutique hotel, with all of its 19 rooms, was simply charming. It had a 24 hour service desk, a modest, but comfortable lobby, and breakfast was served daily on premises in their medieval looking dining hall. Our Superior Double room was a good size by European standards. The bed was very comfortable, and the bathroom was nicely appointed with an upscale shower. The remainder of the amenities were what should be expected, like good WIFI, an in-room safe, and a reasonably sound-proof room. This was the perfect hotel, with a great location, good amenities, and the personal service found in smaller hotel operations.

The Hotel Le Relais des Halles

Meandering Along the Seine

We were eager to stretch our legs and explore after the nine-hour transatlantic flight. With the relatively efficient European airport experience behind us, it was time to allow the immersive travel experience in Paris to unfold before us. I thought there would be no better introduction to Paris than unwinding with a glass of wine at a charming Parisian cafe, followed by a stroll along the Seine en route to our first proper meal in Paris.

The first part of the plan was easy because Paris is awash in charming cafes, and they all serve good wine and food on a casual timeline. We found the Cafe L’Amazonial as we proceeded towards the Seine. We had a nice cheese and charcuterie board to go with the bottle of red wine we ordered.

L’Amazonial

The cafe looked like an inviting stop for a snack and a bottle of wine. We had a charcuterie and fromage board, with a nice bottle of red wine. It was a lovely introduction to the Parisian food scene for our friends.

The difference between a cafe and a restaurant in Paris

First time travelers to France need to understand the difference between a cafe and a restaurant. One allows for a very casual experience where drinks alone may be ordered, or in combination with snacks, or even a full meal. There is no expectation on the customer. It is a casual, anything goes sort of affair. A restaurant experience calls for a level of formality, along with a minimal amount of time spent. One would raise eyebrows, and likely would not be served, attempting to order only a bottle of wine and a cheese/charcuterie board at a restaurant.

The stroll along the Seine was an excellent introduction to the architectural eye candy that awaits the visitor in Paris. We crossed the Seine traversing Ile de la Cite via Pont Neuf to get to the left bank – La Rive Gauche. We continued our meandering along the Seine for about an hour, taking in the scenery, and stopping for photo opportunities as the mood struck us.

Pasco

This is a restaurant in a residential neighborhood in the 7th arrondissement where my wife and I celebrated our anniversary ten years earlier. We had such a wonderful time, we decided to share this place with our friends. Pasco had gone upscale since the last time we visited, with the cuisine a bit more on the haut side, and the portions smaller. We sampled a variety of the menu from starters to dessert, and finished the meal with a photo-op with the owner, who had no recollection of our visit ten years earlier.

Champs-Élysées Promenade

This would be a big day of discovery in central Paris, experienced as a grand promenade on our first full day in the city. And like all big days, it must start with an uplifting meal to bring energy, and mood up to proper levels.

Le Pain Quotidient

This breakfast and brunch bistro was recommended to us by the concierge at our boutique hotel, and it turned out to be a chain. We found a second one not far from the hotel on Rue Montorguiel. The food was good, as was the service. Three of us tried the quiche, which was a bit upscale for breakfast by US standards.

Palais Royal

Our Champs-Élysées trek proceeded after breakfast with our first stop at Palais Royal. A lovely example of Parisian architecture, originally designed in the early 18th century to be the home of a cardinal. This Parisian landmark is a bit out of the way, and isn’t particularly easy to find. It has an interesting courtyard, garden and monuments. We had it to ourselves, a testament to how off the beaten tourist path this site still is.

Le Louvre

The Louvre was our next stop en route to the Champs-Élysées promenade. I should mention that museum touring is both logistically simplified, as well as made affordable with a Paris Museum Pass. Avoiding the lines to purchase individual museum entrance tickets is priceless. We did not linger in the Louvre. We strolled through the grand space with the purpose of seeing Leonardo’s Mona Lisa.  A proper tour of the Louvre could easily be a whole day affair, but it’s not what we intended on this particular day. Getting a sense of its grandeur, architecture and history sufficed for our visit. And with that experience behind us, we set off for our next stop.

Jardin de Tuilleries and Musée de l’Orangerie

Continuing our way en route to the Champs-Élysées, we cross the lovely Jardins de Tuilleries. More history unfolds before us as these gardens were created in the 16th century following a Florentine design, as ordered by Catherine de Medici. We continue our stroll to the side of the garden closest to the Place de la Concorde and the Musée de l’Orangerie. Covered by the Paris Museum Pass, this intimate homage to Impressionist painters, is most famous for Claude Monet’s Water Lilies paintings which are permanently displayed here.

Place de la Concorde to Arc de Triomphe

The feature of the day. This elegant promenade should be on everyone’s Parisian itinerary. Ornately groomed sycamores, and exclusive designer shops line both sides of this grand boulevard, which hosts some prominent French events annually, including the finish of Le Tour de France, Bastille Day parades, and New Year’s Eve celebrations.

There is no better people watching opportunity in Paris. With elegant Parisians going about their day, mixed with the visitor crowds from all over the world, it’s like drama unfolding before your eyes as you stroll from the Place de la Concorde to the Arc de Triomphe.  Steeped in history, this grand promenade was designed in the early 17th century, so a slow pace to soak it all in is in order. The length of the route is merely 2 kilometers, and can easily be walked in 30 minutes. But with a stop for a proper lunch at one its fine cafes, the journey can be made to linger for a few hours.

L’Alsace

This is a Champs-Elysees cafe/restaurant about half way between Place de la Concorde and L’Arc de Triomphe. This was our lunch stop after a bit of discovery trekking on day two in Paris. We had a variety of seafood, including mussels, escargot and fish, along with a nice bottle of rose wine. The rose wine would become a theme for this trip.

Arc de Triomphe

Naturally we must stop and tour this grand Napoleonic monument at the terminus of our climatic Parisian stroll. Built by Napoleon at the height of his influence in the early 19th century, the Arc is the place from which 12 avenues radiate out. A roundabout surrounds it where some of the most chaotic driving known to humanity can be observed. The Arc is a quintessential Parisian landmark, with only the Eiffel Tower having greater recognition.

L’Escargot Montorgueil

We finished our grand day of exploration with dinner at this restaurant, just around the corner from our hotel. I introduced our friends to escargot at lunch earlier in the day, and they wanted to try a full course for themselves. We had a variety of main dishes, like veal, beef, and duck, but the highlight was the escargot. And in particular the escargot with foie gras was the hit of the evening. I asked the waiter, because the combination was new to me. He said that the French considered it déclassé, but the tourists loved it – so it stayed on the menu. I thought it was interesting that the restaurant accommodated visitor demand in light of the local sentiment. Apparently supply and demand worked in France.

Île de la Cité Promenade

Île de la Cité is the larger of the two islands in the Seine River, the other being Île Saint-Louis. La Cité remains the center of Paris, and all road distances are still measured from the 0 km center point located in the square facing Notre-Dame’s western towers, called the Place du Parvis de Notre-Dame. This island was the original ancient “Paris” in Roman times, up through the early medieval era.

La Sainte-Chapelle

An easy walk of less than 3 kilometers leads onto the main island across Le Pont du Change to the first destination – Sainte-Chapelle. This Gothic Holy Royal Chapel is the highlight of the medieval Palais de la Cité, with its stunning stained glass display. This is the most beautiful stained glass I’ve seen in all of my travels.

Notre Dame de Paris

Our next stop would be the grand medieval Cathedral of Notre Dame, among the best examples of Gothic architecture in the world. Flying buttresses were necessary to support its walls, and prevent them from bulging out because the original design had the walls too thin for the height of the cathedral. The design flaw turned into a key attribute of this architecture, making Notre Dame de Paris easily recognizable. The famous gargoyle statuary was placed at strategic locations around the outside of the cathedral to serve as column supports and water spouts.

The cathedral  houses some of the most important relics from Christendom, including the Crown of Thorns, a fragment from the crucifixion cross of Christ, and one of the Holy Nails. None of these are on display, of course.

 

Île Saint-Louis

We crossed the le Pont Saint-Louis to enter the residential oasis in the heart of Paris called Ile Saint-Louis. The smaller of the two natural islands in the Seine, it has narrow one lane roads, with cafe/restaurants sprinkled here and there, and of course – the renowned Berthillion ice cream shop.

Berthillon

This little place is the pinnacle of ice cream in Paris. Sadly, Raymond Berthillon passed away in 2014, but left behind a French ice cream legacy. There is nothing better than a Berthillon cone after a long stroll on Ile Saint Louis, visiting the Notre Dame cathedral, and Sainte Chapelle.

Le Jules Verne

This was dinner at the end our Île de la Cite/Saint-Louis promenade, at the unusually named restaurant comprising most of the 2nd deck on the Eiffel Tower. The restaurant’s namesake and Gustave Eiffel were best friends. This meal was meant to be the highlight of our experience in Paris. I planned to be seated before sunset, and linger over dinner to watch the Parisian skyline light up before my eyes. This meal was comprised of six courses of haute cuisine, each paired with a wine selection. The food was memorable, the service was a white-glove affair, and the entire experience was a perfect punctuation to our evening in Paris, and worth every centime.

Rue Montorgueil

This little slice of central Parisian life is called Rue Montorgueil. Two hundred meters from our boutique hotel lies this pedestrian only street, lined with cafes, restaurants and produce vendors. We walked its length more than once, which is why it’s worth mentioning. We visited restaurants and cafes here. I stopped on occasion to buy fresh berries, and snacked as I explored sights and sounds of the local experience. No matter what part of Paris you spend your nights, spend one afternoon wandering this little gem of a street.

Le Petit Carreaux

We discovered this little street-side cafe as we strolled up Rue Montorguiel taking in the sights and rubbing elbows with the locals. En route to this cafe, I bought some plump and fresh looking raspberries from a street vendor and snacked as I wandered. We had confit du canard – which is one of my favorite Parisian cafe staples, salmon, and somebody had to order the ubiquitous cheeseburger – and they did it right.

 

Les Galeries Lafayette

Is there such a thing as going to Paris without shopping? I think not! And, this is the place to shop. Plenty of floors of high grade Haute Couture, many of the most recognized brands in the world. The kind of place where a silk scarf will set you back a month’s mortgage payment on your high-end hacienda.

There is a roof-top cafe above Les Galeries Lafayette. There is no charge to walk up and take in the view, so the roof-top area is rather crowded. The views of Paris were spectacular. The cocktails were pricy, but the charge was mostly for the view, not the drinks. Worth the price. Also good for people watching.

 

Side Trip to Versailles

Twenty kilometers south of central Paris lies the Palace and Gardens of Versailles. Once the seat of French power as Louis XIV had relocated the royal court away from Paris. The palace was the standard of grandeur, opulence, and royal showmanship across Europe in its time. And still today, few buildings in the world stand up to Versailles in stature.

It was an easy thirty minute Uber ride from Central Paris to Versailles. In addition to the opportunity to tour the Palace and Gardens, the road trip itself to Versailles was interesting. It gave us the opportunity to see the modern day suburb of Versailles, along with its reputation at the higher end of the economic spectrum.

As seen from the photos, the palace itself can be crowded. We visited at the end of May, before the high season. But there may not be a low season to visit Versailles because it is very popular with tourists. However, the gardens are expansive, allowing for a less dense visiting experience. I very much enjoyed the visit, in particular the gardens with the gravity fed fountains – superbly engineered, and still perform well to this day without any hydraulic systems.

Le Petite Venise

This restaurant was in a garden area on the grounds of the Palace of Versailles. There were few dining opportunities of any kind on the grounds, and so this place was packed. We were fortunate to be seated, having arrived early. The seabream fillets, and the risotto were very good.

 

Epilogue

Reflections on Paris. To be fair, this was my 5th Paris experience – and I enjoyed it more than the previous four. Ooooh la la! What a grand time it was!  I don’t know that a more immersive travel experience can be had, but I’m willing to try, naturally. Four days in Paris is a start. It’s just enough to kindle the desire for the rest of the city. Paris requires a month of exploration to appreciate what it has to offer. Four nights is the appetizer that would bring the first time visitor back for a second serving – count me in for four servings after my first. Its draw is alluring and reels the traveler back – charmingly.

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