Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Paris with kids: a few of our favorite things

For our recent trip to Paris (there will be more, we hope) the goal was really just to let the kids soak in a new culture and allow this great city to wash over them–not to cram a heavy itinerary of museums and sights into the eight days we had. You’ll notice an absence of such biggies as the Louvre and the Musée d’Orsay – but those you can find in any guide book. Here’s our list of what we liked best, both general and specific:
Boat tour of the Seine: An excellent way to see the city (if you have a horror of all things touristy, get over it! This is worth it). We hopped aboard the Bateaux Parisians since they were conveniently located near the Quai de la Bourdonnais near the Eiffel Tower (7th arrondissement, where we stayed). Hand-held audio guides were useful for historical background and, on cue from the guide, a group of French schoolchildren broke into a rendition of Les Champs-Élysées. It was charming and kind of magical. 

You can also take the larger Bateaux Mouches from near the Pont de l'Alma (8th), or the smaller, quainter Vedettes du Pont-Neuf from the Ile de la Cité (1st). There are others still. Though we bought tickets and walked on just before departure, it's probably best to book ahead during busier times of year.   

Le Musée de la Poupée (doll museum) made a fun and strangely fascinating destination on the day we visited the Centre Pompidou, which is across the street (4th) – and has contemporary art installations and sweeping views of the city. The girls were also riveted by the street performers in the area, such as the man spinning giant bubbles from a piece of rope and a bucket of suds, and another man creating uncanny bird calls that reached us all the way atop the museum. But the real highlight for my daughters was making friends with a couple of  panhandlers and their adorable puppies, one of which was wearing a miniature, leatherette biker vest.

Deyrolle: We never made it to the Musée D'Orsay because we got so entranced by this "cabinet of curiosities" in the 6th. 

Luxembourg Gardens These gorgeous, sculpted gardens in the 5th are a delight for all ages. There's a merry-go-round, a lake for sailing model boats, and the famous Théâtre des Marionnettes de Paris (puppet theater). The surrounding neighborhood is also fertile shopping grounds, so my Mom and I peeled off while the men "babysat" — which was more than O.K. with them, since it involved sitting in the sun, enjoying a beer from a nearby kiosk while the girls played.        

Champ du Mars was our neighborhood playground. At the foot of the Eiffel Tower, this expanse of lawns, gardens and children's activities was in full splendor in April. Kids can ride a mini carousel and play the ring game, kick a ball around, or race pedal cars around a track. On the other side of the tower, next to the river, is a larger carousel (this area gets very crowded).
Beauté Animale exhibit at the Grand Palais, through July 6th, 2012 (Place Clemenceau, Paris 8th)  

Notre-Dame cathedral had lines out the door and we didn't really fancy waiting in the rain, so we checked out the gargoyles and carvings on the exterior, and then strolled over to the Pont St.-Louis to the Ile St.-Louis. Berthillon, the famous ice cream shop at 31 rue St. Louis en l'ile (4th), was closed, but luckily dozens of smaller shops on the island serve up a smaller selection of the delectable frozen treat, in flavors such as melon and green apple sorbet, and salted caramel ice cream. Afterwards, we walked across the Pont de l'Archevêché, where the girls were fascinated by all the padlocks lovers had clamped to the bridge to declare their undying devotion to one another (how many are still together? I had to wonder).

Tasting new things: Before leaving, we gave our kids the "you-will-try-new-things-and-not-complain" speech. Apparently it worked, because my six-year-old, who would happily subsist on Annie's mac-n-cheese, ate an escargot, a raw oyster, and a cornichon (among other exotic fare). The seven-year-old, who normally loathes eggs, discovered she adores soufflés. We also tried to teach them the fine art of lingering at the table, as meals in Paris naturally seem to stretch out for half the day.

To Market, to Market: Taking kids through a market street such as the Rue Cler or Rue Montorgueil; an open-air farmers' market; or even the local supermarché G20 is a great way for them to get a sense of the food culture. Our daughters were fascinated by all the strange, colorful labels at the grocery store and the ripe smells wafting from local cheese shops like Marie-Anne Cantin (where they kindly shrink-wrapped a nice Epoisses and Camembert for us, for the flight back). We were delighted to discover that our apartment came with a granny cart, making light work of a shopping trip to the Saxe-Breteuil Saturday market (where my 6-year-old was traumatized by the sight of "half a piggy")…we never made it to my favorite of all markets, the Sunday Marché Biologique (organic farmers' market) on the Rue de Raspail. (Click here for a good list of roving markets.) 

Night Walks are perhaps our favorite part of Paris, with or without kids. The city of lights really does live up to its hackneyed nickname after dark, when the sights and the river are at their luminous best. Rarely did the girls complain about these walks, and because they never quite adjusted to the time change we were up quite late roaming the city streets. We made sure to catch sight of the Eiffel tower, which twinkles every hour on the hour, from 9-1, and also took in the glowing pyramids of the Louvre (below). 
Favorite Restaurants (just a few, in addition to the many neighborhood cafés we visited):

Breizh Café: Organic crepes, cidre, and oysters in the Marais (3rd). Reserve for a Sunday lunch, then walk around the neighborhood; be sure and stroll through the Place des Vosges

La Cigale Récamier Impeccable soufflés both savory and sweet (flavors change with the seasons), plus salads and some non-soufflé fare, in the 7th (St. Germain area). We often go here without kids, and although the girls loved the experience, it's a pretty hushed, grown-up scene and we were glad for the couple of pens and paper scraps we had brought along to keep them occupied.


Semilla The brand-new joint venture of Drew Harré and Juan Sanchez (Drew also owns Fish la Boissonerie across the street, as well as the original Cosi, next door; both are great bets). Flavors are light and clear, and Ben is still dreaming of the blanquette de veau he ordered.  
Le Café du Commerce (51 Rue du Commerce, 15th). The food was nothing exceptional, but the space is fun and lively and feels perfectly preserved from 1921, when the restaurant first opened. We sat at the top of the 3-story space and looked down on all the diners below, and the level of energy and noise seemed just right. The menu offers traditional bistro fare and a small kids' menu.

The night we were on our own, Ben and I enjoyed dinner at Passage 53, set in the Passage des Panoramas (right), near the Bourse (2nd). This tiny place has only two seatings per night and a set 10-course menu – meaning you don't know what you're getting until it's in front of you. Minimal and seasonally-driven, the food was delicious, one of our favorite courses being St. Pierre (aka John Dory fish) with morels, asparagus, farro, and a colorful scattering of wild herbs and flowers. 

If you are in this neighborhood, be sure and check out Juveniles restaurant and wine bar, where I used to uncork lots and lots of bottles – always a good time, great wine list and tasty food. Around the corner is the fantastic Willi's Wine Bar, and the gardens of the Palais Royal.

There was so much we didn't get to do. The Jardin d'Acclimation, Jardin des Plantes, and a day at Versailles, to name a few. We didn't make it up to Montmartre. A week sounds like an impossible wealth when you're on the plane with a trip stretched out in front of you, but soon enough you're back on the plane with a heavy heart and even heavier suitcases.

À la prochaine, Paris!

Friday, April 13, 2012

Paris street art

We've done a lot of walking, here in Paris with the kids, and their stamina has exceeded expectations. One of my favorite things about this city is that the walk itself is often better than the actual destination, and so we've tried to make these strolls entertaining for the girls so they don't notice their feet getting weary. One of the little games we've been playing is "spot the street art". The girls noticed some of these on their own, as well as asking me to translate some of the ubiquitous scrawled messages on walls (which is sometimes better not done). 


It's hard to believe this great trip is coming to an end and that tomorrow we head back to Brooklyn. We're frantically throwing things into suitcases right now, but as soon as we're re-settled I plan on compiling our "best of" from the trip.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Musée de la Poupée

Each morning in Paris, no matter what we have announced our plans for the day to be, the girls have asked "So when can we go to the doll museum?" This morning, to their delight, we announced that the plan was to go to the Musée de la Poupée. The museum is tucked back in a sweet little alleyway amid the madness of Beaubourg, near the Centre Pompidou (modern art museum), next to a little garden in honor of Anne Frank (4th arrondissement). The girls loved it. It's a must do for any kids who are doll lovers, and kind of fascinating from an adult perspective to see the toy trends throughout the years. And, though I'm not sure any irony was intended on the part of the museum's curators, my mom and I were helpless with laughter much of the time. These pictures speak for themselves – no captions necessary. 
Musée de la Poupée: Impasse Berthaud, Paris 3e (open Tues.-Sat. 10-6)

The museum is tiny and doesn't take much time; you can easily add it on to a trip to Beaubourg or the Marais. We began here and then moved on to the Pompidou, where we ate lunch at Georges on the top floor, with a magnificent view and pricey but tasty food (the girls happily split a pasta dish and sipped their Oranginas). We breezed through the museum afterwards, then strolled through les Halles and up the Rue Montorgeuil, a market street around the corner from where I lived, years ago. Much has changed in 15 years, some not a bit. We stopped for pastries at the ancient Patisserie Stohrer at #51, and picked out some of the older storefronts among the modern chain shops.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012


It has been raining for much of the time we've been here – a lazy, benign rain that we can't seem to take too seriously, in spite of the spectacularly crappy umbrellas we bought yesterday near the Hotel de Ville. Somehow Paris just seems right this way in April, and somehow the drizzle hasn't stopped us from walking everywhere, with perpetually soggy cuffs. Today after the 6-year-old and I made our morning pastry run we all headed east, with the intention of spending some time at the Musée D'Orsay. But on the way there we made a stop at Deyrolle on Rue du Bac and fell into a rabbit hole that spirited us away for much of the day and derailed our museum plans (OK, I admit the lost time also had something to do with shopping).

I'd wager that there's no shop quite like this "cabinet de curiosités" anywhere on earth, and it may rank up there with my kids' top Paris memories so far. Part natural history museum, part nature lovers' boutique, part gardening shop, much of Deyrolle's charm is in its whimsical styling. There's always a fetching arrangement in the front window, and inside, beasts of all sorts (preserved ones, of course) lounge together in the rooms of the old building. In display cases insects of impossible colors are arranged like precious jewelry. The store has been around since 1831 but nearly burned down in 2008; the photos from the fire's aftermath are almost too heartbreaking to look at, but the boutique has been restored to its current glory.

The children – and adults, I might add – pored over all these treasures for the better part of an hour. There's also a good little book section with prints and natural guides. I couldn't resist picking up a copy of Lecons de Choses, pictured at left. At first it just seems to be a bound set of gorgeous French botanical plates, but then there's an odd little section near the back entitled "La vie domestique" (the domestic life). In it you'll find illustrations of the perils that await you under your own roof (for example: "curiosity is always punished" shows a child overturning scalding liquid from a stove onto himself). Look further and you'll find a good-sized section on the horrors of alcoholism. 

Deyrolle enchanted us on this rainy day and the book kept the kids entertained later, as we waited for lunch at Café Varenne.
Apparently there was once a temperance movement in France…

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Easter in Paris

When I told my daughters we would be spending Easter in Paris, there was a brief moment of panic. Would the Easter Bunny be able to track them here? The 7-year-old decided that of course the Easter Bunny would find them, and not only that, he would be making his delivery wearing a beret. Later, after we had landed and were riding in the taxi from the airport, I broke it to them: Kids in France don’t get a visit from the Easter bunny. The goods get delivered by flying bells. There was silence. Then the 7-year-old declared “That’s weird…and cool.”

All the church bells in France go silent for Good Friday, and legend has it they’ve flown to Rome to visit the Pope. On Easter Sunday, the church bells return to their steeples to announce the resurrection – and to bring back treats for children along with them.
We're still not quite sure whether it was the Easter Bunny or the flying bells who paid a visit last night.

Because most everything is closed on Sunday in Paris – never mind Easter Sunday – we spent much of the day in the Marais (3rd & 4th arrondissements), where many businesses are open and the streets are jam packed with people shopping and strolling. Here's what we did with our day: 

Lunch at Breizh Café: Crêperie featuring savory and sweet Breton buckwheat crêpes, with organic ingredients. We started with oysters, drank hard cider, and then moved on to the  crêpes (fillings include anything from plain gruyere cheese to herring, potatoes, herring roe and creme fraiche), and finished with sweet crêpes; one of the specials was caramelized apples with salted caramel, vanilla ice cream, and whipped cream.
My husband and my Dad took the older daughter with them after lunch to comb the Les Puces de St. Ouen (aka Clignancourt flea market), which is a mini village where you can buy anything from antique dolls' eyes to fine furniture and silver. The girl loved it and came back with a hinged compact made from a shell, and one for her sister, too.

Place des Vosges: My Mom and I took the younger daughter here to play. This beautiful square, flanked by pinkish-colored buildings, has a small playground for children; fountains; benches; and chestnut trees, which are in bloom right now. Under the covered arcades of the buildings surrounding the square, you can hear musicians – some of them quite good – playing for change.
The Musée Picasso, normally another favorite destination, is currently closed for renovation. There's also the Musée Carnavalet, which tells the history of Paris, and the Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature (museum of hunting and nature).

There's great shopping in the Marais, and not to miss is the amazing falafel at L'As de Falafel on Rue des Rosiers (take it to go and sit in one of the beautiful little squares, like the one pictured at top)

The first few days we spent in our neighborhood, the 7th arrondissement. The Eiffel Tower is a close walk, along with Hotel des Invalides. The kids can run around through the gardens and lawns of the Champs de Mars (former military training grounds), and there is a carousel on the other side of the tower.  
We are renting an apartment through Paris Perfect, a great option for longer stays with kids – we can have breakfast here and cook dinner at "home" when the kids are tired. Since it's a residential neighborhood, there are tons of great food shops, the Rue Cler market street, and the Saxe-Breteuil farmers' market on Saturdays and Thursdays. We shopped there for Easter dinner (morels and asparagus are everywhere!) and waited in line to buy a lamb roast at Les Viands du Champ de Mars (122, rue Saint-Dominique, 7e). 

Happy Easter and Happy Passover, friends! 
The view from our window – every hour from 9PM-1AM every night, the tower twinkles for 5 minutes. 
During the last round, the background lights go black.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Paris, the first time

Over Thanksgiving, while rifling through my girlhood room, I found the green and white composition book that served as my diary during my first trip to Paris, when I was 11 years old. I’m trying to recapture some of the wonder with which I glimpsed that city through innocent eyes, since later this week (!) we'll be introducing our own daughters to the City of Light, and I want to remember what it was, back in the summer of ’85, that enchanted me. Was it the ancient mysteries of the Louvre? The iconic monuments? The haunting beauty of Paris at night? Mais, non. Here’s a diary excerpt:

We went to the Deux Magots and saw a man with a pile of glass (broken bottles). While he smashed his face into the pile a man was standing on his head. When he came up he had a few cuts on his face. We all gave him money…it was very exciting.

We also, that same night, watched a sinewy, desperate-looking man undress while balanced on his hands against a wall, until nothing remained but a scrap of red bikini, his hollow stomach heaving with the effort of peeling off his pants with his toes. Try as we might, we couldn't avert our eyes or unglue our feet (and somehow that scene failed to make the cut into my diary).

From the start, it wasn’t the postcard perfection of Paris that grabbed me. It was the seedy quirkiness and the lurid street scenes sprinkled in among all that gorgeousness. The fancy food and well-manicured parks were a big draw, but the the snippy waiters, the junkies falling into the fountain at the Place St. Michel, and the animal aroma of the Métro sealed the deal. Paris that first visit was pungent and relentless and exhilarating, and though I complained about the endless march through museums and monuments, that trip and the trips that followed are burned in richer, more saturated colors than are other childhood memories.

One night, we kids got wind of the fact that a free concert was happening at the Place de la Concorde, so we all gelled our hair and dressed our best version of rock-and-roll, and our moms gamely walked us across the river to stand in the crowd. To this day, my phone will ring sometimes and I’ll answer it, only to hear “One Night in Bangkok” blasting from a radio at the other end. It’s my friend Cary, who was on the trip too and who lent me her grey and pink Commander Salamander t-shirt to go watch Murray Head sing his one hit.

We tore like banshees through quiet squares and terrorized pigeons and made faces at the gargoyles perched on the Notre Dame. I gorged on Île Flottante and fraises des bois and apricot nectar. To my mother’s great shame, I bit into a crystal wine glass and spat out shards of it onto the white tablecloth at the restaurant Jules Verne, atop the Eiffel Tower. I’m sure my parents had high hopes for the trip and I dashed those hopes, bitterly, more than a few times. I’m sure my own daughters will do the same. But more than anything, I'm curious to try on whatever glasses they'll be viewing the city through. Stay tuned: wifi permitting, I will be posting from the road. There may not be any recipes here for a while, but there will be links, ideas, and plenty of pictures. To start with, here are some favorites to prepare for take-off: 

  • Chocolate & Zucchini Recipes, restaurants, and more from French cookbook author Clotilde Dusoulier (in English and French).
  • Goop Guide to French Pharmacies There's nothing quite like a French pharmacy; soon after I land in Paris I scope out the nearest neon green cross and head inside (usually because I've destroyed my feet walking in heels and need pansements). Here is a list of some must-haves.  
  • Girls' Guide to Paris
  • HiP Paris Blog
  • Little Brown Pen Lovely, stolen glimpses of Paris
  • Paris to the Moon Adam Gopnik's collection of essays from his time in Paris on assignment with the New Yorker. Most indelible are his descriptions of swimming with his son at the Ritz pool club and watching him ride the carousel in the Jardin du Luxembourg.
  • Idlewild Books Foreign language bookstore and classes, with locations in Brooklyn and Manhattan. Their conversation class has helped me revive my rusty French.