July 25, 2014

Travel Series - Culture and Cuisine of Paris

Bonjour!

While London can be overrated, given its high costs and relatively underwhelming attractions, Paris is a world class city that delivers. Not just for their attractions and history, but also for their food, outdoor cafés, and ease of getting around.
Several varieties of food stand out in Paris. For starters, you have to have some delicious croissants which – along with a large bread roll, juice, and coffee – form your typical French breakfast. Or should I say little breakfast, seeing how the French say “petit déjeuner” instead of “déjeuner” in Canada? A visit in Paris is also not complete without stopping by an outdoor café or bistro in order to have their long baguette sandwiches. Typically, they cost five euros ($7.50 Canadian), which is similar to what a foot long sub costs in Canada but arguably better. If you decide to order a coffee (café), keep in mind coffee in Paris (and other European cities) is what we in Canada call an espresso, not the double-double from Tim Horton’s. If a small strong cup is not your thing, you may want to opt for a cappuccino or latte instead.
While we are still on the bakery front, I recommend stopping by the Ladurée pastry shop along Paris’ main shopping district, the Champs Élysées. The high quality pastries at Ladurée would make any grownup feel like a kid there, along with the impeccably decorated interior. While most pastries are pricey due to their craftsmanship, you should try their macaroons if nothing else, as most tourists will do.
Aside from baked goods, you may want to get some fresh fruit from a local outdoor vendor and try some French cheese. Fortunately, the hostel I stayed at – Arty Paris – hosted a wine and cheese one night to bring the guests together, which included different varieties from each region. Sadly, I didn’t try the multi-course dinners in Paris in order to get a better understanding of French cuisine.
Getting around Paris is relatively easy thanks to their extensive network of subways (métros), trams, regional express rail (GO transit equivalent), and the world’s largest bike share called Vélib with their 20,000 bikes. The Vélib service, along with the network of bike lanes including shared bus/bike lanes and cycle tracks, help make Paris feel relatively safe for cycling. One weird thing that could throw off some cyclists is certain Parisian streets have shared bus/bike lanes right in the middle. There were also some issues transferring between modes of transportation. (e.g. I couldn’t use a subway fare to transfer on to a tram.)
Paris was the city where I stopped by the most attractions. If there is one beef I have, it’s the long lines, which prevented me from going up the Eiffel Tower. The worst I endured was waiting an hour to an hour and a half to go inside Château de Versailles, mostly to purchase a ticket. Once I got in, it was worthwhile with the impeccable palace decorations and vast gardens, though I would recommend an entire day just for Versailles. For Versailles and other key attractions, you may want to purchase your admission ahead of time if you are not so keen on waiting in lines.
The line issue was not the case when I was at the Louvre, where I was fascinated by the contrasting baroque architecture and modern glass pyramids. Some may say it’s overrated, but I find it lives up to the hype and worth the 12 euro ($18) admission. Not only are there a large number of exhibits, they cover virtually all of human history from the Egyptians, including the rise of Islam. It’s also where DaVinci’s Mona Lisa is kept, which is guarded by more security than anything. Maybe it’s a replica on display behind the glass?
In addition to the Louvre, I was at the Pantheon, where some of France’s greatest heroes including Voltaire and Rousseau are honoured via paintings, sculptures, and the crypt. Near the Pantheon, you will find the Luxembourg Garden which has a replica of the Statue of Liberty, as well as the 850-year-old Notre-Dâme Cathedral on the other side of the Seine River. On my last day in Paris, I walked by the Arc de Triomphe, along the Champs Élysées, and the Eiffel Tower. It goes to show how just walking around truly gives you a feel for a city’s culture.

Stay tuned for my final travel post about the wine region of Bordeaux!

Vive la France!
Rob Z (e-mail)

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