Let me just get this out of the way: I love Paris! No matter how many times I visit Paris, the city continues to enthral me with its fabulous architecture, culture, glamour, luxury and gastronomy. Through different seasons, stages of life and experiences, Paris can be vibrant, stark, resilient, vulnerable, romantic, risqué, rich, or any number of dimensions, but she is always remarkable. With each trip, I saw a different Paris. With each trip, a different dream came true. While I love the touristy and glitzy sides of Paris, the “hidden” Paris – which I began to discover on my most recent trip – is my favourite.
…This trip was special as it was a spontaneously planned rare getaway from the kids. The husband and l were determined to make the most of it while building in some R&R time. For the sake of fairness, each of us picked activities we wanted to experience, which is how we ended up discovering Paris under the lens, through the nose and by the mouth.
Along the way, we learnt a few things:
Lesson #1: Zooming “in” is as important as zooming “out”.
For his pick, the husband chose a 3hr Randy Harris photo tour of the city. While I initially had some reservations, we got lucky with a beautiful day. We saw the same sights in a new light. We noticed the play of light on the Louvre…how art installations in the Jardin des Tuileries transform the space from pretty to pretty surreal. We also discovered Montmartre – the Paris seen in movies…complete with cobblestoned streets, quaint cafes/restaurants and random musicians in lively squares.
Although we wished our guide (an American ex-pat living in Paris) were a professional instead of amateur photographer, the tour was a great way to: enjoy the rich fall colours, view iconic sights from unique perspectives, learn to use our new camera and capture some flattering snapshots.
Most importantly, the tour made us realize that while we remember to “zoom in” on ourselves (or the subject) when we take pictures, we often forget to “zoom out” and notice the surrounding sights, sounds, scents and textures. Adjusting our zoom, is the key to taking the “perfect picture”…looking at which, lets us not only remember the place/event, but also relive the moment.
Lesson #2: The simplest experiences may be the most magical.
No trip to Paris is complete without a visit to the Eiffel Tower. Although it is simply a tower to a lot of Parisians, it is the icon of Paris for the rest of the world. While the view from the top is fabulous, what is truly incredible is watching it light up. Post our photo tour, we hauled ourselves across town for a mandatory photo session with this icon from Champ de Mars as well as Place de Trocadéro.
After successfully photographing ourselves with the Eiffel Tower from every possible angle, we waited…Nutella crepe in hand of course…at Place de Trocadéro for it to light up. Even though I’d seen it before, the sight of thousands of lights suddenly twinkling in the evening sky was just as sensational and magical as the first time I saw it.
Lesson #3: Solo travel need not be solitary travel; strangers that share food become friends.
As the husband was busy with a conference, I signed myself up for a dream experience – a food tour of Paris. Organized group tours can be a great way to meet like-minded people. I joined a group of six ladies – that I had never seen or met before – for the “Taste of Saint-Germain” tour from “Paris by Mouth“. I chose this option as: 1) It was a top-rated food tour on TripAdvisor and 2) it included a couple of my wish-list toppers: Poilâne and Pierre Hermé.
Our guide – Sara – was fantastic and was coincidentally a part-owner of two of the bars we visited on our first day in Paris. The tour was everything I’d expected and more. A fabulous gastronomical adventure that involved tasting pastries and picking up miche (type of bread) from Poilâne, devouring macaroons and croissants from Pierre Hermé, selecting fresh cheeses from the local market and collecting chocolates from Patrick Roger.
We then walked over to a wonderful little wine shop, where a wooden table was set up in an intimate stone-walled room for us, to eat the cheese paired with miche and delicious wines. We capped off the meal with our amazing chocolates and a stop-over at a little place specialising in fresh choux pastries.
The highlight of my Paris trip, the visions, scents and tastes that I came across during this tour were enough to drive me into food-induced coma. I could have – and did – learn about most of these establishments on my own. However, I would never have uncovered the fascinating stories, noticed the little details (bread chandelier, anyone??!), tasted some crazy flavours (lime and basil chocolate? Ispahan croissant?), discovered the different wines and cheeses or had an absolutely wonderful time with complete strangers. Sometimes, just connecting with like-minded people transforms the solo travel experience.
Lesson #4: Integrate meals into the itinerary to achieve repeated gastronomical ecstasy.
Travel itineraries often tend to include activities and logistics, with little emphasis on meals (usually the terribly bland, tasteless and touristy kind). So, we end up picking random restaurants. Spontaneity may be fun, but for vegetarians like us, it can be rather problematic and expensive. Having had one too many unsavoury experiences and because good food is central to my mental/emotional well-being, I spend considerable time researching restaurants before our trips. Reservations are made ahead of time for wish-list toppers and options built-in for some spontaneity.
As a result, besides the food tour and chocolate extravaganza, the husband and I managed to cram a good number of culinary delights in this trip: yummy sandwiches from Cosi (reputed to be one of the city’s best, with lines out the door), sublime macaroons from Pierre Hermé, city’s best hot chocolate at Angelina, fragrant and flavourful Kusmi Tea, delicious coffee, croissants and raspberry tart at exquisite Ladurée (not to be missed), amazing savoury crepes at Breizh café, lovely drinks at Candelaria (on the list of world’s best bars; hidden behind a tiny taqueria) and Le Mary Celeste, fabulous baguettes from Le Grenier á Pain (winner of Best Baguette 2015) with truffle pecorino cheese from the fromagerie nearby, people watching with coffee and pastries at Les Deux Magots (a Parisian institution), incredibly “cheesy” romantic fondue dinner at Pain, Vin, Fromage, tasty street side Maoz falafel and gourmet food shopping at Le Grand Épicerie.
Yet, we were not on some gourmet tour (aside from the 3hr one that I took) – we’d simply included meals into our itinerary. For example, since we wanted to explore the Marais, we had pre-dinner drinks at Candelaria, followed by dinner at Briezh Café and post-dinner drinks at Le Mary Celeste.
As the husband will testify, the strategy is not foolproof. Nevertheless, for this trip, it was absolutely perfect. The kind of perfect that, when I close my eyes, not only makes me smile, but my mouth water.
Lesson #5: Chocolate is the solution. Always.
I strongly believe that everyone should have some “me time”. I chose to spend mine surrounded by a girl’s second best friend: chocolate. So, I treated myself to Le Salon du Chocolat, which is an annual event in France that coincided with our visit there.
From intricate chocolate sculptures and tastings of the finest and wackiest bars, to exquisite wine pairings, unusual accompaniments, live demonstrations and delicious pastries, this event was every chocoholic’s dream come true. As a lover of fine/artisanal dark chocolate, I felt like all my chocolate fantasies suddenly came alive under one roof and at the same time – Cluizel, Le Roux, Chaudun, Chapon…you name it.
It was crowded, mind-boggling and insane. I didn’t know where to look, what to smell, what to taste…what to do. For once, I simply enjoyed being totally lost.
The real lesson…
Sometimes, to truly discover a place, we have to lose ourselves in its sights, scents, sounds, tastes and textures. Find your happiness – be it music, dance, art, photography, food or any other interest – and let it pave your path to uncovering your Paris or for that matter, any destination you choose. Maybe, we need to connect with ourselves and be open to connecting with other people to truly connect with a place.