Notre Dame: Both Our Welcome & Our Farewell to Paris
As soon as our taxi (which had the best free WiFi of the whole trip!!!) entered the city of Paris, I (Chris) got my first glimpse of the oh-so-famous Notre Dame Cathedral. And I reacted with astonished excitement, much to Lisa’s delight. This was her 3rd time in Paris, and she couldn’t wait to see her favorite European city through my eyes. I really could not help but grin and utter goofy exclamations. It is simply the most visually compelling building I’ve ever seen. And even more beautiful in person than in pictures or movies. Fortunately, our hotel was just across the left bank of the Seine (right between St. Germain and the Latin Quarter) from Île de la Cité where the cathedral stands, so we saw it a lot. I don’t think I realized until we were there that Notre Dame was on an island in the middle of the Seine! It’s the heart of the oldest area of Paris, and the cathedral itself was completed in 1345! Most know of it as the home of Quasimodo from the Hunchback of Notre Dame or perhaps for its flying buttresses (very cool architectural feature). You can read all about it, but here I’ll just share pictures from all around it and from one of the two towers. We braved the loooong climb up (we learned NOTHING from our time in Florence…) and were able to get some stunning views of Paris under brilliant blue skies. Oh, and the bells rang right when we reached the top! Uh, I think Quasimodo had to have been completely deaf. Those were some loud bells. And a really nice surprise was the beautiful flower garden behind the cathedral. Wow.
We also ended our trip inside the cathedral at a fabulous choral concert featuring the choir of Notre Dame. We were able to meet a few of the members and its choral director after the concert and learned about how the choir is essentially a training venue for young talented singers, many of whom are students. One older singer we met actually makes a full time living as a choral singer in this choir and a few others, acting as a professional mentor to the younger singers. The music that night was primarily Renaissance, but the women by themselves sang several modern pieces which were really exciting. We had seats right up front, and it was a special way to end our time in Paris and in Europe. The singing was exquisite.
So, here is our Notre Dame photo gallery. I think once Lisa has published her Doors of Europe photo book, she will move on to Gargoyles of Europe! Seeing them up close was worth the long climb to the top. Click for a larger image.
Some Scenes from Paris
We purchased the Paris Pass, which allows for entry into most of the famous attractions and museums, plus a 10-stop “hop-on-hop-off” bus tour that stops at the most iconic locations in the city. We actually rode the 10-stop loop at least 2 or more times in one day, getting off when we felt like it for photos or a snack, but mostly just enjoying the Paris sunshine and cheesy recorded narration. We may not have totally gotten our money’s worth out of the pass (no, we missed the Louvre–Lisa had been and neither of us felt like braving the crowds or the inevitable art-overload), but it was worth it to be chauffeured around the city with such great views. Seeing the sights in the fresh air was more fun anyway. So here are some views of Paris, mostly from the bus, or on stops along the way. First, we should mention our hotel, Hotel Claude Bernard, which is in a perfect location to see the city and soak up the Left Bank vibe. Here’s Chris posing for our hotel ad:
We enjoyed walking around this area, and had our best food experience of Paris at a place nearby (stay tuned). This is the area of artists, students (at The Sorbonne), and “Bohemians” as sung about in La Bohème. There are many famous cafes and shops here, plus plenty of places to simply sit by the river or browse the street vendor stalls. It’s also home of the world-famous Shakespeare and Company bookstore, which attracts visitors, deep-thinkers, and authors from around the globe. The inside steps and requisite bookshop cat were highlights inside, along with its crowded but cozy array of books. Bookstores like this just don’t exist anymore.
Other iconic sights near us included the Panthéon just up the hill from our hotel (originally a church, now a mausoleum). You can see its dome at the end of the street. (Did I mention that except for a brief downpour in Barcelona and a drizzly (but also lovely) day in Venice, the weather for our two-week trip was all blue skies and gentle sunshine? Look at that sky!)
There was also this lovely garden near Shakespeare and Company, and picture-perfect sidewalk cafe, and plenty of street vendors along the Seine. These pictures just say Paris to us.
We also saw many beautiful sights along the river Seine, including beautiful bridges with elaborate sculptures and ornate statues, many gilded with gold. The first picture below is of Notre Dame from the opposite side of the river, and depicts how many spend their days in Paris, languishing by the water. We could totally get used to that.
We did see some of the most famous sights on our bus tour (and Lisa got some pretty dang good pics in spite of being on top of a moving object!). Below you will see the courtyard of the Louvre, the Champs Élysées, the Arc de Triomphe, the front of the famous Moulin Rouge, and a gallery of some really nice shots of the Eiffel Tower (we framed the last black and white one, and it looks so iconic, you’d think it was the stock photo that came with the frame!). No, we didn’t go up, but we had agreed to not do all the requisite touristy things and just enjoy being in the city.Click on an Eiffel Tower picture for a full view.
Don’t Forget the Food!
You must be scratching your head and wondering “So the two food nerds are in Paris. What’s with all the pictures of things that aren’t food?” To be honest, we kept things pretty simple in Paris. We got street food pizza, some Lebanese food, picnic lunches at an open-air market and also a small supermarket, ate large bags of uniquely-flavored potato chips in bed in our hotel, and salivated at pastry shop windows. Like this one. Moan.
We did visit one market, and in spite of being shooed away with loud cries of “Madame! Madame!” by one of the vendors when she started taking pictures, Lisa managed to get this epic shot of some tomatoes on the vine. Nice, huh?
So food was never really far from our minds or our mouths, and we did have two really special food experiences that we’ll share here.
We went to one of the top patisseries in Paris, Blé Sucré, which some say has the best croissants in the city. We didn’t get a croissant, but the next best (or better!) thing: a pain au chocolat, which is a croissant filled with chocolate! It was just too good. And true (but sad) story: we went to a local farmer’s market when we got home, and got some items from a special bakery, including a beautiful croissant. Much to our disappointment, Paris ruined us. The croissant was simply inedible! Instead of a rich handful of flavorful butter held together by endless and ethereal flakes of dough, it was leaden, greasy and tasteless. So, if you want to hate baked goods in the U.S. (at least at most places) forever, go to Paris. Consider yourself warned. We also got a baba au rhum (a filled cake REALLY saturated with rum) and a Paris-Brest, filled with hazelnut cream. Feast your eyes:
Yeah, as good as they look. We could have sat on that park bench and returned all afternoon to sample everything in the store.
Dining at the Center of the World
Our truly magical meal in Paris turned out to be TWO meals, because we went to the same restaurant in the Latin Quarter by our hotel two nights in a row. It’s called Le Centre du Monde and it was utterly charming. Both nights the air was perfectly balmy and the tables are right up to the cobblestone narrow pedestrian street. It provided us the quintessential Paris bistro food experience, plus, on the first night, we chatted with two Americans with connections to our home state of Alabama! The young man seated next to us turned out to have been raised only 30 miles from where we live, and was a grad student in English presenting a paper at a conference at the Sorbonne! And he and Lisa had a mutual friend! Talk about your small world (or, center of the world) moments. We enjoyed talking about connections back home and hearing about his studies. Then, a woman approached us, apologized for eavesdropping, and shared that she knew a French artist who owned a gallery in a city near us, who had a son living in Florida! She turned out to be a lovely and fascinating individual, and Lisa really connected with her. She was actually ending an “Eat, Pray, Love”-esque journey. She had been in Nepal learning spiritual practices (her stories of having to sing in Sanskrit and play an instrument she knew nothing about were hilarious!), and ended up in Paris, where she was having an…undefined romance with the French artist! We sat and talked to her until the restaurant closed. It was nice to have the place to ourselves with absolutely no pressure from the staff to leave.
Anyway, about the food. The first night we started with a classic: French onion soup. It was everything it was supposed to be–rich, complex, both savory and sweet from the long cooking of the onions.
We each got another classic–boeuf bourguignon–the first night. It was sooooo good, rich, sweet, and beefy that Lisa got it again the second night. I ventured out for variety and had another France-on-a-plate moment: roasted chicken, ratatouille, and frites (French fries!). Humble, simple but perfectly prepared and delicious. You can see we were literally on top of the cobblestone street and you can see the curb and chairs for the restaurant across from us. It was like dining on a movie set. The air was the perfect temperature, and the night was quiet and peaceful. Really exactly what we wanted from our Paris dining experience.
We topped off the meal (first night? second night? both? memory is fuzzy here) with crème caramel for Lisa and chocolate lava cake for Chris. Sadly, the cake was fake-tasting and forgettable (hence it is lurking behind the true dessert star), but the crème caramel was straight from culinary central casting. Crisp, shattering and slightly bitter caramel top, and dreamy-creamy, perfectly smooth custard underneath.
Well. That’s post 5 of 5 for our European tour of sights and culinary delights. Hope you have enjoyed this post and maybe some of the others as well. Perhaps your appetite (and appetite for travel) have been whetted by what we’ve shared. Truly nothing compares to getting away and seeing how different, yet also the same, people and situations can be in a place far from home. It’s been said that happiness is better found in experiences than things. We tend to agree. Unless those things happen to be edible and artfully prepared by someone who doesn’t even speak your language, yet knows how to satisfy you through the gift of something delicious!
So, whether it’s across town or across the world, get outside your door, talk to people different from you, and eat.
From Spain, Italy, and France, we bid you Adiós! Arrivederci! Au revoir!