Friday, October 09, 2009

A Quiet Restaurant with a Big Heart: Casa Pepe

One of my favorite nights out in Paris isn't actually very French at all. At number 5, rue Mouffetard (a great street for walking and exploring on the Left Bank), you will find a bit of Spain tucked into the Heart of Paris! The restaurant is named Casa Pepe and it is a quiet, unassuming storefront with a big heart.

The tables are generally fairly close together, but with the jovial attitude that permeates everything from the food to the ambiance, you somehow don't mind rubbing elbows with a total stranger! The food is traditional Spanish fare-- I highly recommend both their paellas and their tapas platters. The great addition, though, is the entertainment! For an extremely reasonable rate, you not only get a great, relaxing meal, but also dueling guitars, singing, and traditional Spanish dancing. The later in the evening it is, the more all-encompassing the entertainment, so if you're looking for a quieter night, stop by on the earlier side (they're open til 2am!).

My only complaint (and it truly is the only complaint-- I really love this spot!) is that the dueling guitars are from time-to-time just beside your ear and it can be a little overwhelming. They generally look for non-verbal cues, however, and move fairly quickly if you don't look like you're enjoying it.

Casa Pepe
5, rue Mouffetard
Pasris 75005
Metro:Cardinal Lemoine, Place Monge
Hours: Every day, lunch and dinner until 2am!

View Larger Map

PS- Image courtesy of La Casa Pepe.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Bridging the Centuries

Each bridge that crosses the Seine in Paris has a story to tell-- and has held the weight of the world's stories through time. As noted by everyone from Ernest Hemingway to Audrey Hepburn, people come here to reflect, write, and listen. This photograph takes you on a "walk" past 6 of the bridges. Enjoy...

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Something Had to Give: Le Grand Colbert

The movie "Somethings Gotta Give" entered the American scene in 2003 as a fun romantic comedy starring Jack Nicholson and Diane Keaton. What the title lacked in creativity, the film seemed to make up for in star power and character development. At one point in the film Diane Keaton goes to Paris for her birthday and has dinner at a great little restaurant, her "favorite" restaurant. Enter: stage left, Le Grand Colbert.

Although it listed as a historic monument (the building was constructed to be a townhouse in 1637), it only recently entered the tourist scene once word got out that this is the restaurant of "Something's Gotta Give" fame.

The exterior of the restaurant is like something... out of a movie. The neon sign at once seems to contrast with the grand, baroque-style windows and velvet drapes, yet it also makes it rather unique. Once inside, the ambiance takes over with waiters bustling about, the clattering of plates and silverware, and an exquisite mosaic floor. For me, however, that's where the movie magic ends.

The food was fine, but nothing more. I found the service to be rushed and uncommitted. In addition, it was so incredibly hot sitting next to the window due to the extremely large lights that I had to change tables (Note: If you do decide to go, do NOT sit next to the window!). All-in-all, I was unimpressed with the restaurant, apart from the decor and the location.

Perhaps the restaurant wasn't quite ready for an onslaught of tourists, perhaps they have been surviving on their reputation, or maybe they treat the regulars with a little more elegance. In the end, though, it seems that "something had to give."

Le Grand Colbert

2, rue Vivienne
Paris 75002
Metro: Palais Royale


View Larger Map

Saturday, July 25, 2009

A Fresh Perspective: Paris Food Markets

Someone kindly mentioned the other day that my blog is missing something: the Paris markets! Given my theory that you can't truly understand a culture until you understand how it interacts with food, they couldn't have been more right.

Paris has fresh food available in amazing quantities and, unlike the U.S., almost all of it is grown/harvested domestically. The fish come in from the north, the fruits and vegetables from the south, and a great many things are brought in from Rungis, the massive market just outside the city where chefs shop early each morning.

Walking through the market you may find everything from live crabs to chickens, and eggs to olives. It is an incredible mixture of produce from sellers who specialize in just one department. The foods are generally arranged in colorful displays, making them appealing to the eye, as well as the palette. In addition, the freshness of all the products seems to add that certain something extra to everything-- the strawberries and carrots seems sweeter, the fish and meats healthier, the pastas more flavorful.

If you're staying in an apartment while in Paris, I recommend trying the fresh chicken or seafood, vegetables, and fruit (Barefoot Contessa has some great French recipes online-- try her Roast Lemon Chicken for an easy, delicious meal). If you have a hotel room during your stay, grab a rotisserie chicken, some cheese and fruit for a lovely picnic in the garden.

Paris Food Markets

* There are many locations throughout the city, and the days/times depend on the location and time of year. Generally markets are held on large boulevards or open squares in neighborhoods and are closed by closing time. Click here for a list of markets by location and their current dates/times.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Bringing Home a Taste of Paris: Flavorful Souvenirs

Awhile ago I watched a Martha Stewart episode in which she travels to Paris to meet the owner of the Poilane bakeries. They talked at length about his family, the shops, and (naturally) the breads. After nearly 5 minutes of discussion, she noted that he speaks of bread like it is an art to which he emphatically responded "But it is!"

The Poilane breads are a perfect illustration for how things-- and specifically foods-- are carefully prepared in France. Everything from bread to chocolate and wine to mustard are created with great attention to detail. All of this means that bringing back a flavorful souvenir is money well spent-- and memories that keep on giving!

Not everything can fit well inside a suitcase, but here are a few of my favorites:

- Maille: The prestigious mustard shop on the Place Madeleine carries several varieties you will only find here, along with their traditional fare. You can also have mustard on tap! Some of my personal favorite Maille mustards include Sundried Tomato & Chevre, Provencale, and Lime & Dill. (The Maille boutique is seen above)

- Fauchon: Also located on the Place Madeline, Fauchon is known for their exquisite packaged foods. Try some of their coffee or sweets to go. Also sold here are the little pots of honey from the bees at the Opera Garnier.

- Lavinia: The largest wine store in Paris is not far from the Place Madeleine and literally has everything you could ever want in terms of wine and spirits.

- Jeff de Bruges: With several locations around the city, this chocolatier is fairly easy to find. They have a line of chocolates specifically made to be souvenirs (in the shapes of airplanes, purses, etc.) and others that will leave your mouth watering.

I've also heard of people bringing back French flour (which is different from American flour), but I'm not sure that putting substantial quantities of a white powder in your luggage is a good idea, so I've yet to try it. Always be sure to have everything packaged carefully and note the travel restrictions on traveling with liquids.

Happy travels and Bon Appetit!

Maille: 6, place de la Madeleine; Metro: Madeleine
Fauchon:30, place de la Madeleine; Metro: Madeleine
Lavinia: 3, Boulevard de la Madeleine; Metro: Madeleine
Jeff de Bruges: 19 stores throughout the City

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Aux Lyonnais: Overflowing with Flavor

Tucked away on a quiet side street not far from the Opera Garnier, lies a gem of a restaurant bustling with activity and overflowing with flavor. This Alain Ducasse-run bistro is everything a classic bistro should be- vivacious, charming, and busy-- but with quality presented in every detail.

The staff are helpful and attentive, which is important because my only complaint about the restaurant is that it can be a bit difficult to read the menu. The descriptions are fairly specific to Lyonnais cuisine, and uses words not often found in the vocabulary of tourists. The staff is at ease translating into English, however, and generally offer even before you ask.

I've taken a variety of people to Aux Lyonnais-- from self-proclaimed "adventurous eaters" to those who like to stick to the "boring side of the menu" and they've all been impressed by the ambiance and flavors.

For dinner, I recommend the prix fixe menu, which gives you a sampling of their fare for only 34 euros (try the charcuterie plate!). It is also worth noting that the wine list presents a variety of possibilities and has a price range to match. Reservations recommended.

Aux Lyonnais
32, rue Saint Marc
2nd arrondisement
Metro: Richelieu-Drouot

View Larger Map

PS- Image courtesy of Alain Duasse and Aux Lyonnais.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

L'Atelier Joel Robuchon: Worth every Bite and Sip

I had seen it written up as several things. First of all, it is always called "modern." Now, I can be modern: I like modern art, modern architecture (occasionally) and certainly modern fashion, but modern food somehow conjures up images of over-priced raw vegetables artfully arranged on a plate. Now why isn't that appealing?

I had also seen it called a sushi bar. I like sushi. In fact, I've been to several of Nobu's restaurants around the world (my favorite being in Miami) and had a lovely time, but that isn't why I come to Paris. I am much more a bistro girl, where I can get to know the waiter in a nice, but not-so-stuffy environment, and get his recommendations on food and wine.

In the end, then, the name Joel Robuchon is what attracted me to the restaurant. He has been called "Chef of the Century" by a group far wiser than I, the best French craftsman as far back as 1976 and currently has several restaurants around the world for a total of 25 Michelin stars- more than any chef in the world. If that wasn't enough (and it wasn't-- I can be a bit of an anti-snob), I also recently finished an autiobiography by Patricia Wells, the food and cookbook writer based in Paris, who speaks very kindly of Joel and his attention to detail. So I went.

It's fair to say my expectations in terms of ambiance were pretty low, but I was truly stunned at how much I enjoyed the evening. Not only was the "modern, sushi bar" intriguing, but it was actually inviting. The open kitchen concept provided more a feeling of cooking with friends (who can cook really, really well) than a formal, haute cuisine dinner. In addition, the service was attentive and helpful, and the staff in the open kitchen created more the feeling of a well-choreographed performance than an intense pressure-cooker. All that said, both the food and wine certainly lived up to Mr. Robuchon's reputation in both the a la carte and tasting menu selections.

In the end, although an evening at L'Atelier may be a splurge, it is filled with unexpected pleasures in every bite and sip.

Reservations highly recommended.

L'Atelier Joel Robuchon
5 rue du Montalembert
7th arrondisement
Metro: Rue du Bac

View Larger Map

PS- Image courtesy of Joel Robuchon and the L'Atelier Joel Robuchon.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Menagerie at the Jardin des Plantes: Step Back in Time

The centrally-located Menagerie at the Jardin des Plantes is worth a stop as you make your way across the left bank, especially if you have children in tow. Housed within the walls of the Jardin des Plantes, the Menagerie dates back to 1789 (making it the oldest continually-operating zoo in the world) when it was founded as a home for Marie Antoinette's unusual collection of animals after the French revolution. Though its foundings may not have been under the most positive of circumstances, the zoo is now a lovely place to spend an afternoon.

Stepping in the front gate of the zoo is like stepping back in time-- instead of being greeted by the glass and high walls found in most modern zoos, you are met with mahogany-stained wood and forged iron. The fences have been there long enough that many of the trees have actually grown around them. It may be old, but the well-maintained space continues to hold an exotic collection of animals as atypical now as it must have been in 1789. The current animals-in-residence range from the traditional monkeys and flamingos to yaks, rheas, and red-tailed pandas (as well as many others you may never have heard of!). Many of the signs are written in both French and English, giving foreign visitors a fighting chance.

The rest of the Jardin des Plantes is also worth visiting-- especially the Natural History Museum located in the opposite corner of the garden. There are playground areas for the kids to run in and a beautiful collection of flora for picture-taking. The only thing missing is good food nearby, so grab a sandwich to eat while you're there or plan on leaving before mealtime.

(Note: There is also the Paris Zoological Park located in the Bois de Vincennes. It is currently closed for renovations, but it is a bit of a hike unless you are in Paris for an extended time.)

Jardin des Plantes

Price: 8 euros/adult; 6 euros/child
Address: Jardin des Plantes, 5th arrondisement
Metro: Jussieu or Gare d'Austerlitz

View Larger Map

Monday, May 18, 2009

Jardin du Luxembourg: Postcard Perfect

There are a few places in Paris where time and space seem to merge into an idyllic, sepia-toned postcard. It seems it is often a combination of natural beauty, complementary architecture, and a perfect balance of activities and open space. The Jardin du Luxembourg is one of these places. This large garden on Paris' left bank is so-well landscaped that one must search to find all of the things that make it truly special. Within its fences, it hosts orchards of apple and pear trees, a puppet theater, a large playground for children, a beekeeping school, a large gazebo with free public performances, and a pond in which children sail model sailboats.

The chateau and garden were initially built for Marie de Medicis in 1615, though there have been many changes since its beginnings. Due to the large number of sculptures now found in the garden (French queens, Beethoven, and the first model of the Statue of Liberty, among others) it is sometimes called the outdoor museum. In addition, exhibitions are posted on the exterior of the garden fence several times a year-- "small talk" among Parisians is often whether or not they've seen the latest exhibition and what they thought of it.

While sailing model boats around the pond is perhaps the most well-known past time in the garden, I've spent significantly more time in the playground, which has play areas for nearly every age group. It is a fantastic space that enables children to run free for a few minutes in the City of Lights-- a perfect afternoon escape. Note that there is an entrance fee, though it is quite reasonable. Also, if you plan to leave and return later in the day, get your hand stamped for re-entry. (Note: By contrast, the puppet theater is a bit more expensive and not nearly as impressive-- it is a fun activity if you have time to spend, but otherwise I'd skip it.)

While the children are playing in the garden, perhaps you can take a minute and write that sepia-toned postcard. Just make sure you keep it with you as a souvenir for years to come.

Jardin du Luxembourg

Price: 2,60 euros/child, 1,60 euros/adult
Address: 75006 Paris
Metro: Odeon, Cluny-La Sorbonne or Pont Royal (RER B)


View Larger Map

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Cite des Enfants/ Parc de la Villette

This "City of Children" as it's called contains a wide variety of child-focused activities- cinemas, parks, a science museum, a mini aquarium, and even a concert venue. Like most family venues in Paris, you buy a separate ticket to each activity, though they do coordinate it so you only need pay once.

The highlight for the under 12s is the Cite des Enfants, a hands-on science museum where various rooms enable children to conduct their own experiments on water, wind, movement, etc. You purchase a ticket to either the 2-7 year olds' museum or the 5-12 year olds' museum. The tickets are timed, so you line up in a queue and once you are in, you have about an hour to explore the space.

There is also a larger science museum which older kids find interesting. At this time there is a Crime Lab exhibition which encourages kids to use science to do their own detective work. There are also exhibits on the human genome, energy consumption, and the effects of light and shadows. In addition there is are movie theaters featuring science-related shows, the IMAX movie theater, a large park with a few playground spaces and a small aquarium.

While the newer spaces are well-done and up-to-date, the older areas are beginning to look a bit dated. In addition, I found the queue spaces to be lacking in things to keep kids interested, which is disappointing. If you are in Paris for more than a week, it may be nice to let the kids air out a bit at this child-focused venue. There are a variety of restaurants/cafes on site for easy access (though the Quick across the square has a substantial play space). If you're here for less than a week, however, it seems a waste of time to leave the city to do something you could do at home (it is basically an all day event- similar to Versailles- up to 2 hours travel time round trip).

Cite des Enfants/ Parc de la Villette

Address: Avenue Corentin-Cariou, 19th
Metro: Porte de la Villette


Agrandir le plan

Monday, May 04, 2009

The Perfect Guide to Paris- Time Out

I am generally not one to subscribe to the idea of a guidebook. I find that my ideas/tastes are sometimes different than those of the writers and I end up spending my precious time in a new location discovering someone else's idea of what is interesting. In addition, the guidebooks generally present much more information than I have time-- or desire-- to read (I don't have that much information about my hometown!) and I then have to lug all 200+ pages in my handbag while I travel. All that said, there is one guidebook that I readily recommend to everyone who asks. It is the TimeOut Paris guide, an annual publication available for $6.95 (7.99 euros). Inside, the magazine presents a detailed description, along with contact information and updated hours. It's all broken down into five basic categories:

- Sightseeing (by area)
- Consuming (restaurants, cafes, and bars)
- Arts & Leisure (cabaret, children's activities, music, nightlife, etc.)
- Hotels
- Essentials (resources and emergency information)

In addition, the back pages contain a full-page size metro map for easy viewing, a separate map showing the layout of the arrondisements in Paris, and more specific street-maps to be found on the pages describing the area they represent. The magazine is well layed-out, lightweight, informative, and generally well-written.

If you are looking for a keepsake, I recommend buying the TimeOut guide and a separate book of photography after you return (that way it doesn't add to your luggage weight on the return trip!). Either way, be sure to have this handy when you step off the plane. It will leave you informed, save you time, and keep you from needing a chiropractor's appointment after your trip!

Note: There is a separate TimeOut Paris book, which covers the same information, but costs more and is heavier to carry around. I prefer the magazine.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

A (mini) Pot of Gold: Inspired Honey

The Opera Garnier is famous for many things. It is stunningly beautiful-- a tribute to the arts in every possible way. It's beauty is captured in paintings by artists like Degas (who used to attend regularly). Somewhat lesser known is that the story "Phantom of the Opera" is set here because the building sits atop a small reservoir. Even lesser known is that the Opera is home to a school of trout and several hives of bees.

As the story goes, it was several years ago that then-prop man at the opera, Jean Paucton, was looking for a place to keep his new beehive until he could get it to his country house. He apparently asked his friend, who worked on the Opera's fire brigade and was raising a school of trout under the opera house (I couldn't make this up if I tried!), for advice. The gentleman recommended putting the hive on the roof. Mr. Paucton was reticent as he was unsure where the bees would find pollen, but he had no choice. He returned the next week to find the hive overflowing with honey-- significantly more full, in fact, than hives get in the countryside! The hive has continued growing for more than 25 years now and he now has over 75,000 bees residing in 5 hives, collecting more than 1,000 pounds of honey per year.

The honey is said to be especially fragrant as these bees have access to Paris' most prestigious gardens. From the flowers of the French "White House" to the Jardin Tuileries and even as far as the Bois de Bologne, the bees collect pollen throughout the city and return to produce mini pots of gold (available for sale in the Opera shop and at the gourmet food shop Fauchon).

After hearing about the bees for some time, I decided to try to find the honey. I marched over to Fauchon and paid dearly for my 125 grams of "gold." I have to say, though, that in the end, it tastes like honey. Perhaps it is a little more floral, perhaps a little sweeter even, but the thing I like about it most is that it is a little taste of heaven from what must be some of the most inspired bees on Earth. I wonder how the trout made out...

An Out of Body Experience: A Corps Ouvert

Walking in to the controversial exhibition in a private gallery space in Paris, I was curious as to what I would find inside. The exhibition is posted on buses and billboards throughout the city, and at this point, the basic concept is fairly well known. The exhibition features the human body-- using actual human bodies-- to show the inner workings and intricate systems we use everyday but never see.

I've always been fascinated by the human body. From the way the organs form to the sophisticated way in which the systems interact, it all seems impossible, yet it works.

The first body you see when walking in is laying down, encased in plexiglass-- a very comfortable way to begin. The body is cut at 1 cm intervals and laid out so you can see the bones, veins, tendons, etc. as they move through the body. It was very artistically displayed and extremely interesting. The second body, however, stands before you, like you could have a conversation with it, and I was suddenly acutely aware that, at one point, this was a person who did stand next to people and have conversations-- something much more disturbing to me. It took me a few minutes to come to terms with what I was seeing. I developed an intense respect for each of the figures before me, something not usually required in an art exhibit. As I went through the rest of the show, I read every sign and reviewed every display in an earnest desire to understand all I could from what these people had given me the opportunity to learn.

About 2/3 of the way through the exhibition, however, I was jarred back into reality when I saw the cranium of a small child. I can understand the concept of giving your own body to art and education (as odd as it seems), but as a mother I could not come to grips with how you would willingly give the body of your child to anyone. I was shocked and disappointed that it was included, especially since it didn't seem to add anything to the show-- certainly the points could have been made without it.

I left the exhibition extremely contemplative, intrigued, appalled, feeling challenged, and yet somehow inspired. I don't know that I would actively recommend the exhibition (as I think everyone should decide their comfort level for themselves), but if you're interested, know that it is artistic, informative and I am grateful to have had the opportunity to see it... this unforgettable, out-of-body experience.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Le Chateaubriand: Fabulous sans Frills

I'd all but given up on this Republique-area find. I walked by a couple times and could find no sign of the well-recommended restaurant. I decided it had closed and (sadly) went on my way. However, a couple days later, as I was going somewhere else, I happened to walk by during business hours (which are quite strict) and discovered it still exists!

Walking into this bustling, no-frills restaurant, I was acutely aware of the wonderful aromas emerging from the kitchen, as well as the very local crowd-- always a good sign. This is not a tourist destination, due mostly to its location away from the major tourist sites, but should be on the list of anyone in the area. The lunch menu is a just 19 euros for which you receive either an entree and main course or main course and dessert (being a lover of desserts, I chose the latter). While there is only one main course served daily, they have a variety of wines, and the house carafe was a bit young though not bad. The main course on our visit was "deconstructed" lamb in a bouillon with a mixture of vegetables and spices. Truly exceptional. The desserts were as beautifully simple as the main course was complex and included pot chocolate and apple crumble, both of which I would recommend.

The dinner menu is a bit steeper at 45 euros per person, but includes 5 courses of delicious foods. Note that you only choose your dessert (the rest is pre-set), so you have to be open to new foods, but they've never led me astray. The wine list at dinner was lovely-- with many very affordable wines. Also note that the flavors of the meals tend to be complex, so I recommend asking your server for wine suggestions.

The hours are 12-2 and 7:30-?p. During our lunch, the chef emerged from the kitchen promptly at 2p and went outside even though there was a line out the front of the restaurant and around the corner. Needless to say, arrive early because at the end of the meal, they close up shop and you'd never know there is a great restaurant hiding behind the closed facade.

Note: Due to the break-neck pace at which the waitstaff functions and the lack of choice for meals, I would recommend leaving the kids with a babysitter.

UPDATE: This restaurant is now listed in the top 50 restaurants in the world (it is also the Breakthrough Restaurant of the Year)! Due to that designation, as well as significant press as of late, I highly recommend securing a reservation in advance.

Le Chateaubriand
Address: 129 Avenue Parmentier, 11th arrondisement
Metro: Parmentier

View Larger Map

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Stimulating Conversation

As a whole, the French tend to be a fairly philosophical people. Long ago, once the traditional past time of drinking wine in the afternoon was replaced with drinking coffee, there was apparently a national awakening of sorts. Take away a mild sedative, replace it with a stimulant and- voila!- The Enlightenment! Coffee has now been an integral part of French culture for nearly 350 years. Having spent a great deal of time indulging in some of the world's best coffees, and having spent significant time in many of the country's best cafes, however, I have to believe there's more to The Enlightenment than a hot, new beverage.

Whenever you see someone alone in public here, they are almost always reading (vs. listening to their iPod or talking on the phone). Whether they are in a cafe, on the metro, or a park bench, they nearly always have their noses in something interesting. It is something I've observed frequently, but only after I recently saw a homeless man dig the daily paper out of the trash and begin to read, was I struck by how fundamental it must be to the French people.

The French seem to have a voracious appetite for reading. The news stands on nearly every corner carry all 14 French daily newspapers, along with the eight weekly French newspapers, and more than 325 French magazines. In addition, note that many of the magazines here-- Elle, Vogue, etc., are weekly publications (instead of monthlies or- gasp!- quarterlies). It's an unbelievable amount of reading material-- and we haven't even broached the subject of French literature!

With so much information floating around, it isn't difficult to see why the French seem so well-versed on a wide variety of topics-- including American politics and international affairs, topics that sometimes seem out-of-reach to the average American.

Whether The Englightenment was caused by a literal "sobering up" of the French people or if the amount of reading material was suddenly prevalent enough for the average man to begin pulling knowledge from a variety of disciplines, I sometimes think our world is very much in need of The Enlightenment- Part 2. Anyone for a couple hours on the Internet and a dose of Red Bull?

Monday, February 02, 2009

The CineAqua: Something for Everyone

As everyone who has traveled with kids knows, one of the greatest challenges is finding activities to keep everyone happy. While a 10-16 year old may be interested in a tour of the sewers (yes, they exist!), all the 2-6 year olds want is space to run and play-- leaving the parents to pacify the toddlers at one stop and the teen at the next.

The first time I walked into the CineAqua in Paris, I was stunned. The steep entrance fee of nearly 20 euros per adult (15 per child), leaves a family of four out $90 before you walk in the door-- quite a bit more expensive than a trip up the iconic Eiffel Tower or the world-famous Louvre. I've been back to CineAqua a couple times since, however, and discovered that the true beauty of this gorgeous destination is its ability to make everyone happy (it's also worth noting that the price is about the same as aquariums in the U.S.).

Half aquarium, half "Movieum," the CineAqua combines two very different museums into a single stop. With nearly 500 species of fish and invertebrates, 3 full-size cinema screens, a petting pond and shark tank, this odd combination of attractions is not only open to all ages, but actually has something to keep everyone engaged.

People of all ages, and especially young children, will enjoy watching the wide variety of sealife swim by in beautiful blue and green tanks. Interspersed throughout are large cinema screens showing movies like "West Side Story" or the latest Bollywood hit-- something the teens/adults will enjoy for more than a few minutes. There are also areas dedicated to explaining how studios create special effects, build and film models, and, the last time I was there, a make-up artist demonstrating how to make grotesque wounds on your hand with a take-home kit.

As if that wasn't enough, the CineAqua has one of the best locations in Paris. It is located directly across from the Eiffel Tower on the steps of the Palais Chaillot (note: look carefully for signs-- it is easy to miss). In the winter, it is a great place to warm up from the cold, and in the heat of July, it is comfortably cool. They have a full, Japanese restaurant and separate cafe for snacks. The bottom line is that this is the best attraction I've found for families exploring the city, and one of the only ones where everyone wins.

Address: 2, Avenue des Nation Unies, 16th arrondisement
Metro: Troacadero


Jardin vs. Jardin d'Acclimation: Worth every pretty euro

I visited the famous Jardin d'Acclimation with the kids on Sunday. It is listed in every guide book, every website, every blog that explores things to do with kids in Paris. I've long wanted to go, yet never had the opportunity until some friends suggested it last Sunday.

Remember it is January-- and nothing is beautiful in January-- but this park has the makings of something out of a storybook. Relatively small and quaint, the attractions include a small science museum, carnival rides, a zoo and a train. It has everything kids could want... in an amusement park. I say that specifically because while the park was lovely (if not more than a bit cold), it wasn't really a park at all. I've read umpteen reviews of Paris attractions and, yet, I somehow always missed that this is really an amusement park at its core (think Disneyland or Parc Asterix). The Bois de Bologne is a park. The Jardin du Luxembourg is a park. The Jardin d'Acclimation is not.

The distinction is important for a couple reasons. First of all, although the entrance fee is only 2.50 euros, you pay for everything else separately (45 euros for 30 ride tickets, 5 euros pp for the science museum, 90 euros for brunch or 25 euros for an outdoor lunch). Secondly, if people visiting Paris want to visit a park, I would more readily recommend one of the major parks in the city which are conveniently located near other major attractions and offer special activities for children such as sailing boats, playing on playgrounds, or jumping on trampolines. These parks include the Jardin du Luxembourg, the Tuileries or the Parc Monceau.

When all is said and done, it was a lovely afternoon spent in a beautiful space that will almost certainly become even better in a few months time. Given all my negativity due to the differences between a jardin and the Jardin d'Acclimation, I still have to say it was worth every euro-- every pretty euro.

Jardin d'Acclimation

Address: Bois de Bologne
Metro: Les Sablons or Porte Maillot (a train will take you directly to the entrance from Porte Maillot)

View Larger Map

Sold(es) on Shopping in Paris

There aren't many reasons to visit Paris in January-- even February and March can be overcast and rainy-- but January can be quite cold, actually. There is only one reason I can think of to visit this outdoor city during the indoor season: the sales!!

Americans are generally well-versed in the Black Friday sales and the steep discounts the day after Christmas, but the French save it up for one HUGE sale during the month of January. In short, everything goes on sale-- clothes, shoes, handbags, haircuts, wine... everything (in French the word "soldes" means sale). During the course of the month, the discounts get bigger and bigger until they are about 70% off retail price. Then, February 1, the stores open with their new collections and the "soldes" signs are gone until next season (July).

One of the easiest ways to take advantage is to visit the large department stores near the Opera Garnier. Most of the significant shops in Paris have space in the large department stores-- everything from Gap and Zara to Sonya Rykiel and Ralph Lauren.

My favorite department store here is the Galeries Lafayette. The variety of collections are generally astounding (and cover a variety of sizes and price ranges) and the domed, Belle Epoque building itself is no less dramatic.

If you go, be sure to spend all your money at once. After you're done, you may visit the "detaxe" downstairs to get back the tax from your purchases. This can be a long process depending on the line, but it can also save a significant amount of money depending on what you spent. They will give you a form to take to the "detaxe" center at the airport upon your departure. A refund will then be sent to you.

Shopping in Paris is not only fun, but also a very cultural activity. Regardless of when you visit, I encourage you to spend some time exploring the shops and boutiques. Afterwards, I'm sure you, too, will be "soldes" on Paris!

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Tasting a bit of Feminism

My husband and I are fairly equal partners in this challenge of everyday life. We both clean, care for the children and house, and divide-and-conquer as necessary. We have a mutual respect that is helpful (until we have differing ideas, of course). The point is there aren't many tasks that I would be surprised to see him doing, nor vice versa.

For dinner last night, we sat down at one of our old (though not great--this was more for nostalgic purposes) haunts and proceeded to review the menu. As I made my decisions first, I started looking at the wines. Our waitress, a young, French woman, came and took our order and we thought nothing of it.

When she returned, however, she held a bottle of wine and was clearly full of angst. She uncorked the wine and began moving it towards my husband. I wasn't understanding at all until she blurted out (in French), "Well, Madame ordered the wine, but is she also going to taste it?" I suddenly understood that it was probably not normal for a woman to order the wine. I said I would try it and she breathed a sigh of relief. She turned to my husband with a nod of approval and said "very progressive!"

I was fairly amused-- as was he. After living here all these years, neither of us had ever noticed that it mattered who ordered/tasted the wine. Is it another "rule of having fun?" Since then, I have asked several waiters if women ever order wine and they have said that it has happened-- proving that, while it is not necessarily a surprise, it is also not common. I don't know if the wine was really so great that night, or if it was simply a bit of feminism I was tasting. Either way, the results brought a smile to my lips.

Home Sweet Home

I arrived in Paris for our sabbatical just last week and one of the places on my list to return to tout de suite was the Brasserie Balzar. This famous, left-bank bistrot is one of my favorites-- they have a wonderful combination of a warm ambiance, friendly staff and a great location. During our last sabbatical, we visited a handful of times in various forms- my husband and I alone, with children, with friends, etc. and had a lovely dinner each and every time.

Since it had been three years since I had the pleasure of dining with them, I wondered if I would remember any of the staff. As I walked to the front door, I immediately recognized the maitre d'. He is a stout, older gentleman with an unforgettable mustache and a ready smile. In addition, a couple of the waiters (yes, they are all men) were the same. I gave a vague smile as I didn't want them to think they should remember me and walked to my table.

Shortly after being seated, the maitre d' walked up to me and said (in French) "It has been awhile, Madame." I was stunned that he remembered me and then quicly realized that he probably saw my look of nostalgia as I walked in, but I played along nonetheless. I told him it had been three years, in fact, but that I was happy to be back. He next said (again in French), "And how is your husband, the professor?" You could have told me I'd just won the lottery and I would have been no less stunned. How on Earth could he remember me three years after my last visit-- even remembering my husband's occupation? I told him my husband was well and we would return together soon.

Some people say home is a collection of personal objects, others argue that home is wherever you belong, the old sitcom "Cheers" said it was "where everybody knows your name." I don't know that anyone here knows my name, and I am certianly lacking in personal belongings, but I am most certainly home.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The Cannibale Cafe: A Grain of Salt with your Dinner

I like to learn-- I always have. I like to find out what people think, their ideas on politics and even religion-- if nothing else, it's a fresh perspective but I generally walk away with something more to reflect on. In much the same manner as new ideas, I love to get recommendations from people-- what are their favorite websites, restaurants, vacation sites, etc.?

A couple days ago I found myself without a dinner idea at dinner time which meant we were going out. I quickly scanned the Internet for a new, child-friendly choice in Paris and came up with almost nothing. There was one review, however, that caught my eye-- a ChowHound review of the Cannibale Cafe. The cafe was near our apartment and the review was great (good food, easy-going staff, and art supplies for kids!). The name of the restaurant lingered in my mind, but to avoid a coup d'etat, I decided to give it a try.

The Cannibale Cafe could not have been a worse choice for dinner. Outside of the generally unsavory area it was in, I entered the restaurant with my children in tow and proceeded to sit down to the worst French meal I've ever had (in or outside of the country!). The actual menu featured nude lesbians entangled on the cover (which my 6 year old found quite interesting), a zebra in a thong on the glasses and NO child-friendly food (or art supplies) anywhere in site. Thankfully, my husband's overdone, but tasty steak came with the requisite frites, which we all shared. It didn't save the dinner, but it saved my children from becoming... well, cannibals.

I suppose, in the end, all perspectives and ideas need to be taken with a grain of salt. They all reflect the myriad of experiences of the writer which may (or may not) be in line with your own thinking. Who knew-- even restaurant reviews need a little salt now and then.

Cannibale Cafe
Address:93, Rue Jean Pierre Timbaud, 11th arrondisement
Metro: Couronnes