Surprise, Delight on the Streets of Paris
We had planned to end our first full day in Paris with a leisurely stroll down the Avenue des Champs-Elysees, taking in the sights of the famous shopping boulevard and enjoying a birds' eye view of the French capital atop the Arc de Triomphe.
Instead, we found ourselves in the middle of a major anti-gay marriage demonstration. Protesters, numbering anywhere from 300,000 to 1 million depending on the counts taken by the Parisian security forces or rally organizers, had decided to shut down the city's main artery following a rally in front of the monument honoring Napoleon and his troops.
This took place in late March, a week prior to Easter Sunday, during a spring break marked by near freezing temperatures and a mostly sunless sky. Due to the hostility of the crowd, many stores shut their doors and police blocked entrances in the area to the underground Metro transit system.
It was one of several rallies held ahead of the vote Tuesday, April 23 in the French Parliament to finalize adoption of the same-sex marriage bill championed by Socialist President Francois Hollande. It is set to take effect in June.
Seeing families marching with their young children against marriage equality in the country that coined the term laissez faire was discombobulating to say the least. A couple from New York City also caught up in the street shenanigans expressed shock when we confirmed for them the focus of the rally, remarking that one would never see a similar sight in midtown Manhattan.
The loudest contretemps we witnessed involved an older couple with bicycles who it appeared had stumbled into the same predicament as us. The man was yelling at police for blocking a side street they apparently wanted to take; the officers merely smiled and repeatedly apologized for having to block the road.
Later that night television coverage showed video of altercations between protesters and police. Yet at no time did I ever feel my safety or my partner's was at risk, and throughout the rest of our weeklong vacation, there was little evidence of the hot button gay rights debate.
To counterbalance the anti-gay chanting we had witnessed that Sunday evening, we opted to have dinner in the gay Marais district. We stumbled upon a delightful cafe, Le Gai Moulin Bistro (10 Rue St Merri), a block from the Pompidou Center.
A City of Neighborhoods
Throughout our visit a stroll down an alleyway or side street would lead us to charming eateries, tucked-away stores and hidden parklets. Much like San Francisco, Paris is divided into numerous neighborhoods each with its unique charms and offerings.
Our first afternoon, having landed on an overnight Air France flight at 10 a.m. Paris time, we headed out to explore the Left Bank. Filled with art galleries and trendy shops, the area is crisscrossed by narrow streets and home to the original Le Cafe de Flore.
Next door to one of the world's oldest restaurants - Cafe le Procope, founded in 1686 - is La Jacobine tea salon and restaurant (on the Cour du Commerce Saint-Andre at 59-61 Rue Saint-Andre des Arts) that serves sumptuous crepes, both savory and sweet.
Finding our way back to the Rue Cler district where we were staying proved a bit tricky, as navigating the Paris streetscape presented directional challenges. Luckily the underground Metro system is fairly easy to figure out, so as soon as we located a station we were back to our hotel a short ride later. The most difficult part was discerning how to purchase our tickets.
Getting anywhere in Paris is a breeze by its famous subways, though to make your trip enjoyable it is best to focus on one or two parts of town per day. It is also wise to book a hotel in a neighborhood that is walking distance to most of your planned activities.
We opted for the small, family-owned Hotel du Champ De Mars mere steps away from Rue Cler, a pedestrian-only, two-block street filled with food purveyors and chocolate shops. Each morning we grabbed a cafe de creme at the nearby Cafe du Marche (38 Rue Cler), an inviting corner spot great for people watching.
A 15-minute walk away was the Eiffel Tower and the banks of the Seine River, where we embarked on a lovely dinner cruise. (http://www.bateauxparisiens.com).
We had come to la ville-lumière equipped with a guidebook (we prefer Rick Steves's travel guides, as he provides do-it-yourself free walking tours and recommends restaurants that aren't tourist traps) and a daily schedule we felt would be manageable.
But we quickly realized we had been a bit overly ambitious in trying to visit several neighborhoods per day. Nor had we taken into account how crowded certain sites would be, even in the off-season.
One worthwhile outing is to the underground catacombs (1 Place Denfert-Rochereau, 8 euros or $10.41 per person) but be prepared for hourlong waits. The number of people allowed to descend 60 feet beneath the city to see the final resting place for millions of Parisians is limited to 20 at a time.
Set aside one whole day to see the ghostly white Sacre-Coeur Basilica and wander the hillside of Montmartre to soak in the neighborhoods' bohemian history. At the bottom fronting Place Blanche is the famous facade of the cancan dance hall Moulin Rouge with its rotating rooftop windmill.
We ended up short on time to explore the entire neighborhood, as we had only a few hours before we needed to head back across the Seine River for a walking tour of the Latin Quarter. The Metro ride took longer than expected, though, and we didn't arrive in time for the tour. After visiting the Pantheon on our own, we walked over to the Ile de la Cite - the island where Paris was founded - to see Notre Dame.
On the recommendation of our guide at the Eiffel Tower, we returned later that night to Montmartre with plans to dine at Le Refuge des Fondues. The small eatery along the Rue des Trois Freres is famous for serving wine in baby bottles.
Greeting us outside was a crowd of mainly English speakers who all said they had reservations, so we ended up around the corner at La Cave a Jojo (26 Rue des Trois Freres) where owner Joel Thibaud proved to be a gracious host. We dined on a wonderful dinner of traditional French dishes, such as sausage with lentils and shepherd's pie, at reasonable prices.
The bistro also had some quirkiness on the menu. For dessert I ordered rum cake, which was served with fruitcake slices arrayed on a plate and a bottle of rum on the side. Unsure what to do, as our waiter offered no explanation, the French couple seated next to us explained I was to pour as much rum as I wanted over the dessert.
Another treat was seeing the phallically plated sausage and potato dish served to our male dining companion. When his girlfriend translated my comment about how homoerotic his meal appeared, he laughed and facetiously offered me a bite.
In and around Paris are a maddening number of museums, creating a cultural logjam for visitors. There are the sprawling palatial grounds of the Louvre, a magnet for tourists, or the off-the-beaten-path Delacroix Museum in the house where painter Eugene Delacriox resided from 1857 to his death in 1863.
Well worth the price is the Museum Pass, which allows users to skip the longer entry lines and head for special queues at the larger museums. There are two-day, four-day and six-day options (39 euros to 69 euros) and more than 60 cultural institutions are included in the pass. If bought online ahead of time, the pass can be delivered to your hotel to be picked up at check-in (http://en.parismuseumpass.com/).
The Louvre proved to be an all-day affair, while the Musee Dorsay with its impressionist masterpieces we managed to see in less than two hours.
Another line-cutting option worth the cost was buying timed-entry tickets for the Eiffel Tower. Fat Tire Bike Tours offers English-speaking guided tours of the famous monument that skip the entry lines. (50 euros a person, http://fattirebiketours.com/paris).
Although we could have easily spent the full week seeing Paris, being Disney fan geeks we instead slated two and a half days at Disneyland Paris, in Marne-la-Vallée about a 45-minute commuter train ride from the heart of the city.
Similar in layout to the original Disneyland in Anaheim, its European cousin boasts more elaborately themed walk-through attractions and stage shows (partly due to the extreme weather, as we witnessed when it lightly snowed one afternoon). The park also plays up cowboy kitsch, with several hotels themed to western motifs and a dinner show modeled after Buffalo Bill's traveling vaudeville spectacles in the late 1880s through 1913.
One nicety about being at Disney was not worrying about pickpockets. It is such a problem that everywhere you go in Paris you are likely to be greeted by signs warning you to watch your wallet. Shortly after our visit, guards at the Louvre held a one-day strike to protest the problem at the museum, as they, too, fall victim to the thieves.
As for the language barrier, it didn't prove to be much of a hindrance. As much as my partner wanted to practice speaking French, most people we met would respond back in English.
C'est la vie!