Le Baron Rouge took me by surprise; so different to any place I had yet encountered in Paris. Slightly out of the way, but totally worth it. This lively wine bar oozes charm, originality and perhaps represents down-to-earth France at its best. Don’t expect a seat – the huge barrels of wine clearly take preference over tables and chairs – but this doesn’t matter. After choosing from the vast selection of wines available, rest your glass on a barrel, enjoy some saucisson-sec and take in the great variation of people enjoying their Friday night there. This rustic place is far from prim and proper, but the service and quick and good and you can even take home 2 litres of wine in a plastic container for EUR6.50.
Only the highly disciplined will pass this traditional Parisian cafe without being tempted in. A look through the window will make your mouth water. The hot chocolate, or ‘chocolate soup’ is the best in the city, though their ‘Mont Blanc’ desert is perhaps even more sought after. I wouldn’t come here for lunch since it is very expensive and it has become very touristy, but it is still worth a visit for a well-deserved tea-time rest after a day of sight-seeing or a walk in the Tuileries Gardens.
This top restaurant, overlooking the Louvre and its famous glass pyramid, may well be your treat of the weekend. And it would be totally worth it. Sit here and people watch in prime position, while sipping a delicious white wine or tasting Cafe Marley’s heavenly Foie Gras. All the cafes on the Rue de Rivoli are extraordinarily expensive, so if you have to choose one, make it this one. Also a hip place to come for an early evening drink.
Walking around the lively Marais on a Sunday afternoon I noticed a lot of people clutching kebabs in yellow napkins. Odd, perhaps, in a city of croissants and crepes. After following the kebab trail I ended up in the Jewish quarter of the Marais, at L’as du Fallafel: apparently the best fallafel stand in the city, perhaps the country.
L’as du Fallafel
In the heart of the Marais, this is the place to come for Sunday brunch. Sit outside and observe locals and tourists a like stroll down cobbled streets, window-shopping in cute boutiques or picking up bargain finds in one of the many vintage shops.
While the experience itself is more recommendable than the food, the food is prepared on the premises, sourced locally and is as organic as possible. The hot chocolate (it is, literally, melted chocolate) is delicious or, if you prefer some wine, the Sancerre is only 4 euros a glass. That’s how they roll in France.
28 Rue Vieille du Temple
Tel: 01 48 87 49 64
Metro: St Paul
Photo from www.thedenizen.co.nz
213 rue St Honore
I adore this small (for Paris) museum, located in the old orangery of the Tuilerries palace and recently exquisitely renovated. The queues are short and there is this tranquillity about the place that completely relaxes you upon entering. Sit in the airy curved white rooms and take in Monet’s Nympheaus (Waterlillies) or amble from room to room enjoying the beautiful and varied Impressionist and post-Impressionist works from Cezanne to Picasso.
Jardin des Tuileries
Opening times: 9:45 – 5:15pm
Entrance: €7.50 or free if 25 and under (with ID)
Last weekend I returned to Paris with my father, again on the speedy Eurostar, but this time in Standard Premium. Definitely worth paying the extra for – lots of leg room, a better than expected meal (big step up from aeroplane food) and a glass of wine. The perfect way to zip to Paris, in just 2.5 hours.
This is what I loved about my last visit:
Discovering new affordable Bistros
We were staying at the Mandarin Oriental – as luxurious as it gets – so going for dinner at down to earth French bistros was just what we needed.
A la Biche au Bois is a short walk from Bastille Metro. It is small and unassuming, but the decor is nicely done. A large mirror covers one side, giving the impression the place is larger than it is, and it has a cosy feel. It is a little cramped, but by chatty locals, making the experience all the more French. They have a great 4 Course offer for €29. And we are talking huge portions of hearty French food. For starters expect duck terrine and onion soup. For the main the special was Coq au Vin but I had steak with pepper sauce and a huge pile of fries. The cheese board was delightful. And for pudding you could have chocolate mouse, creme brûlée, creme caramel or chocolate ‘gateaux’. I went for the latter and could barely get up afterwards. Definitely will return. Book at least a week ahead.
L’Ange 20 is also a charming French Bistro. I found it on Trip Adviser and was curious because of its exceptionally high rating (I think No. 7 of all the restaurants in Paris). None of the reviews had a bad word to say. And it was again very reasonably priced – 2 courses for €22, 3 courses for €28. Situated right by the Pompidou centre (not my favourite building but always quite fun to see) in a small, quiet side street, but surrounded by a few other tempting looking restaurants, Le Ange 20 is a very welcoming place. It is TINY, with an open kitchen and as many tables squashed in as possible. The waiter was charming, spoke perfect English and was very attentive. The food was a bit more refined than A la Biche au Bisous, I had gambas with guacamole and salad to start and slow-cooked lamb with fresh veg and pumpkin puree to follow. I skipped pudding. The only bad thing was the other guests. All decidedly not French. We had a Russian family next to us who unapologetically spilt wine all over us. And a lot of Americans. I was obviously not the only one who read Trip Adviser. Still, recommended. Book at least a week ahead.
Lunch in a flowery side-street in the Marais
Sunday is the day to go to Marais. Much of Paris shuts its door on this day but the Marais is in full swing. Buzzing with locals and tourists a like, the winding cobbled streets of vintage shops, cute cafes and antique shops are full of life. Place des Vosges remains one of my favourite squares and is worth a wander around.
For brunch/lunch there are plenty of places but we wanted somewhere which was peaceful and preferably in the sun. We didn’t get a place in the sun but we did find the perfect flowery side-street with a few lovely restaurants/cafes. We choose TresOr and enjoyed a healthy and tasty salad and white wine amongst the flowers. Food itself was nothing that special and not cheap but the location really made it for us.
Sunbathing in the Tuilleries Gardens
My past visits to Paris have all been in the autumn/winter, when the weather was quite chilly. This time the sun was out most of the time and it gave Paris the added beauty of a warm glow. We were like a broken record, constantly commenting on how beautiful Paris was. The Tuilleries Gardens can’t real be compared to the royal parks of London. People don’t sit on the grass drinking beer or Pimms. You don’t really have the gloriously imposing Louvre as a view from Hyde Park. But the Tuilleries Gardens are, like the London parks, the place locals and tourists come to bask in the late-spring sun. Not so much on benches but on green metal chairs with slanted backs which are surprisingly comfy. Wonderful to sit and watch the world go by. We even spotted a girl walking with a big sign which said ‘FREE HUGS’. You’d think Parisians wouldn’t really appreciate that too much. But she got a few hugs from randomers. Pretty amusing.
The view from Le Meurice Penthouse Suite
There are certainly perks of working in the luxury travel industry. I was curious to see the famous Le Meurice (Dorchester Collection) – one of the top Paris palace hotels. And so we were given a guided tour by ‘Guillaume’. I found some of the rooms a bit stuffy and dowdy, but the main lobby and their English-style bar very comfortable and cool. But the highlight by far was the terrace of the Penthouse Suite which we were lucky to see. The views of Paris were the best I had ever seen. So good it gave me goosebumps. I still think they should make the terrace a restaurant, there wouldn’t be a restaurant in town that would beat that view (plus they have a 3* Michelin cook).
Brunch at Raffles The Royal Monceau
Such a cool hotel! Interior designer and architect Philip Starck has cleverly thought out the ‘look’ behind this hotel. Its quirky and fun but retains the highest standard of luxury. Some may think it a bit OTT, but I loved it. Best bit was their main restaurant and bar. The buffet offers everything you want. The puddings are all made by Pierre Herme. Enough said. Go there as a treat because it does not come cheap.
Stumbling across hidden gems
With a city like Paris you are bound to stumble across new places/streets/buildings which make you stand still and think ‘wow, how did I not know about this?’. One of those places was Rue des Barres, on the edge of the Marais/Hotel de Ville, close to the Seine. On a sunny Sunday afternoon it was totally rammed with everyone sitting outside, and I got the feeling this was not one of those tourist traps. Beautiful views of St. Gervais-et-St.-Protais Church and very peaceful as it is set back form the main road. The restaurant/’cafe du thé’ which looked most appealing was l’Ebouillante, with a reasonably priced menu and a bright terrace.
Finding a cool Book Shop
Shakespeare & Company is the cutest bookshop you will ever come across. Right opposite the Notre Dame, on the river Seine, you will find this small, higgledy piggledy book shop, first opened in 1919. It’s friendly and welcoming. I love the fact that the staff there put their own reviews on their favourite books. Sadly it has become a victim of its own success – it was so overcrowded when we went that I struggled to walk around. This may have been because it was a Saturday afternoon but I think also simply because it is so famous and everyone wants to have a look. They also do a few cool literary events in the shop every month.
La Biche au Bois
45 Avenue Ledru-Rollin
Metro: La Bastille or Ledru-Rollin
6 Rue Geofrroy L’Angevin
Raffles Le Royal Monceau
37 Avenue Hoche
Metro: Champs Elysees
Le Meurice, Dorchester Collection
228 Rue de Rivoli
Metro: Tuilleries or Louvre
7, Rue du Tresor, 75004 Paris
Metro: St Paul
Shakespeare & Company
37 Rue de la Bûcherie, 75005 Paris
Metro: Notre Dame
Loitering around the Languedoc
By the end of January I think most of us are quite desperate to get out of a cold, wet, snowy or just generally miserable England. Chances of flying a short distance and finding the warm sun however, is slim. Unless you fork out substantial amounts and go further afield, like the Caribbean. Dream on.
While the south of France is by no means warm during the winter, a lovely invitation to the Languedoc provided the perfect excuse to get out of London and gulp some fresh French country air. And after a long weekend there, I learnt that not only was the Languedoc remarkably beautiful, but it is steeped in history and is full of charming and often over-looked villages and towns.
Many people won’t even know where the Languedoc is in France – overshadowed by its more popular neighbour – the Provence. It is in fact just west of the Provence and as the southernmost province in France it borders Spain. Admittedly signs of ‘Barcelona’ on the motorway got me a little excited.
I was staying in the tiny village of Vindrac, which is an hour drive south of Toulouse and in the northern part of the Languedoc. Apart from hours sitting by huge log fires and drinking the local wines, we actually managed to discover a lot of the area.
Quick point: to understand the Languedoc area you have to understand its Cathar history. Catherism originated in the 12th Century as a party which opposed the opulence and corruption of the Catholic church, and who were against material obsession. They were very popular amongst the locals in the Languedoc and the papacy quickly saw them as a threat. This set off a 20 year military crusade initiated by Pope Innocent III against the Cathars – who were consequentially subjected to terror and torture. The Cathar history is still very much prevalent in the Languedoc area and adds an interesting dimension to the area.
These were three of my favourite visits:
During the summer apparently a hot tourist destination, in the winter it is much quieter but still has a good vibe since it is a lively student town. The two sights I wanted to see during our afternoon and evening there were the St. Sernin Cathedral and Place du Capitol.
Basilica St. Sernin
The largest Romanesque Church in Western Europe – quite sober from the outside (apart from its wedding-cake tiered tower), but the interior is impressive and some of the detail very intricate. Definitely worth a wander.
Place du Capitol
The centre and the focal point of the city. Magical at sunset as the sun’s fading glow turns the city hall a beautiful red colour. The square reminded me a bit of Madrid’s Plaza Mayor, spacious and majestic, with buskers performing tricks and bars and cafes lining the Western side. All the streets leading off the square are filled with restaurants and bars, and especially the street leading to the University has some really affordable and quite fun restaurants. Tip: Make sure you try a ‘cassoulet’ – the regional dish of sausage stew. Delicious.
Cordes sur Ciel
Right next door to Vicdrac lies – according to the Rough Guide – the number one must-visit place in the Languedoc. In the summer month this small, pretty town is overflowing tourists but when we were there it seemed quite dead. The name of the town means Cordes ‘on the sky’, due to the fog which hovers across this cliff-clinging town. Once a Cathar strong-hold, it provided the defence against Simon de Montfort who led the war of terror against the Cathar ‘heretics’. It’s a bit of a climb but once you reach the top you will find the most stunning sweeping views of the Languedoc countryside. The steep, winding cobbled roads lead you up and up, past shuttered houses, small art and antique shops and – in our case – closed restaurants. I did notice a lot of fois gras shops which are also worth a visit. It is truly charming and I can imagine it being a lovely place to spend the day and evening in the summer. In our case it was a little cold and quiet, but the plus side was having the town to ourselves.
I had completely underestimated Albi. A proper, bustling town, Albi was much bigger and certainly more alive than Cordes sur Ciel. The main attraction: the Albi Cathedral. Said to be the world’s largest building built of brick (though a friend told me that Battersea Power Station rivals it), it is hugely impressive and imposing. It reminded me a little of the castle in Sleep Beauty but perhaps without all the thorns.
Unsurprisingly the Cathedral is connected to the Cathar history of the area. It was built after the military crusade took place suppressing the Cathar movement. The Cathedral served to be a constant reminder to the locals of the relentless power and authority of the Christian faith.
Apart from the Cathedral, there is a Toulouse-Lautrec museum (Palais de la Berbie, Place Sainte-Cécile, entrance 8 euros) just behind it which is worth a visit. The famous French artist was born very close to Albi and he is certainly very celebrated in the region.
The Languedoc has plenty more towns and villages worth visiting, and every place we drove through had charm. That’s what I love about France: even the most non-descript villages which you pass through to reach a – according to the guidebook – ‘must see’, often ends up being lovely and worth stopping at and going for a wander. I’ll certainly be back. Perhaps when the sun is fully out though.