Never an Umbrella in Paris

In Destinations, Europe by Susan Watkins

I grew up loving the Audrey Hepburn classic “Sabrina.”  So, on our first morning in Paris, as I gazed out the vintage windows of our pied de terre onto unexpectedly rainy streets, I recalled Sabrina Fairchild’s admonition to the practical Linus:  “Never an umbrella in Paris, and under all circumstances rain the very first day!”  “It’s a sign”, I said to my husband.  And with that, we embarked on three magical days in the rain of Paris.

We are Parisians in spirit, renting a quaint little apartment on rue de Buci, a great location in the St. Germaine area of the 6th arrondissement.  The area is overflowing with charming little cafes, shops, markets, flower stalls and bakeries, and is a great place to walk and soak in all that is Paris.  We are on the 3rd floor of a very old building and we have a little kitchen, a mysterious washer/dryer (which we never did figure out how to operate) and an entertainment center complete with a collection of atmospheric French cafe music!

We found a bakery near our apartment for breakfast – bustling with early morning commuters and tourists alike, ordering pastries and coffees on the go.  We always get the fresh croissants and lattes.  There is nothing, absolutely nothing, like a fresh Parisian croissant.  Is it something in the water?  I don’t know, but you have never tasted a croissant until you have had one of these.  We sipped our lattes at an outside table under the awning, watching the fashionable Parisians hurrying through the rain to their day’s appointments.  But  wait – they are carrying umbrellas.  Haven’t they seen the movie?

After breakfast, we strolled along the watery streets of Blvd. San Germaine, and came upon the most gorgeous chocolate shop.  Chocolate is an absolute art here  – and I will definitely return to this shop for a visit later today!  Next, we made our way across the beautiful River Seine to Notre Dame where we went inside to marvel at the grandeur of this beautiful cathedral.  We crossed the river again to the historic Marais area, where we met our Paris Greeter, Jean-Pierre.  A busy professional and hotel executive, Jean-Pierre took two hours of his lunchtime to take us on a Paris Walk.  He was utterly charming and very knowledgeable in French and World history.  We walked through medieval Paris, the old Jewish quarter which is now full of fashionable boutiques, the Place de Vosages, and finally through the Musee Carnavalet which is housed in an old French mansion and is dedicated to the history of the city.  It was completely fascinating and we never ever would have gone there on our own.  The goal of Paris Greeters is to show tourists the lesser known or hidden parts of Paris.  The greeters are Parisians who love their city and want to share it with others.  We had a marvelous time – although a Paris Walk is free of charge, we gladly made a requested donation for their good work in helping people like us appreciate the beauty of their beloved city.

That night we had a fabulous dinner in the Marais at a little brasserie called Le Bouledogue – the Bulldog!  It was off the beaten tourist path (always good) and featured a classic French menu.  There were about 15 tables in the place, the sound of French conversations filtered through the air around us.  I had gazpacho and a veal chop with a mushroom glacé sauce, salad and the ever present pommes frites; which seem to be a staple on every menu.  Gary had filet with Béarnaise sauce.  As we left the restaurant we made our way over to the river and Pont Neuf to view the beautifully lit Eiffel Tower.  On the hour, the Tower lights twinkle like a Christmas tree, and it is one of my favorite things to experience in Paris!  As luck would have it, we arrived just as the Tower began its 11 o’clock twinkle.  We stood there arm in arm for a long time, gazing out over the river, the soft lights of the city and the twinkling Tower, taking in all that is magic about Paris at night.

Day two in Paris dawned with damp streets and gray, cloudy skies.  On our list for the day is a visit to the old Paris Opera House, Le Palais Garnier.  This was one of the biggest surprises during our trip – wow, wow, wow!!!  I had seen a few pictures of this opera house, but I was completely unprepared for its magnificence.  It is huge and imposing, and inside it rivals any royal palace I’ve seen – in fact one of its salons reminded me of the Palace of Versailles’ Hall of Mirrors. Everywhere you look is gilt, painted ceilings, mosaics, and at the center is a sweeping double grand marble staircase; such a sight to behold.  The theater itself is all red velvet upholstery and gilt, and there is a giant crystal chandelier and a ceiling dome painted by Chagalle which seemed too modern and out of place with the rest of the decor.  The belle époque theater was built in 1875 and the foundations of the building straddle an underground lake; hence this opera house is the inspiration for Phantom of the Opera.  I looked around for the Phantom himself, but today he must have been hiding in his subterranean lair.

Dinner tonight was in our rue de Buci neighborhood at L’Atlas, sitting at a little table on the street.  French onion soup and the BEST beef bourguignon for me and canard (duck) confit for Gary.  Half way through dinner it started to rain again and because we were sitting outside, the waiter adjusted our table to fit just under the awning.  Many others scampered to find tables inside the restaurant, but not us.  We enjoyed watching the rain and all the passersby as we lingered over our bottle of wine. The evening ended with a walk hand in hand through the lively Latin Quarter searching for the perfect dessert street crepe, where things were quieter than normal due to the presence of the rain.

On our last day in Paris, we visited the Cluny Museum.  This museum is one of the more overlooked museums in Paris and is dedicated to the Middle Ages.  It is located in the old Abbey of Cluny which before that was a villa and the site of Roman baths when Paris was Lutetia — a Roman city.  The ruins of the bath are still in the museum, together with older statuary from Notre Dame, old stained glass windows from Notre Dame and St. Chapelle, shields, jewels, reliquaries, wooden carved altarpieces and tapestries, all of which you can view “up close and personal”.  Disappointingly, the star attraction of this museum, the tapestries of the Lady and the Unicorn, which date from the 1400’s, are currently under restoration and were unavailable for viewing.  Despite this, the collection here is very beautiful and unique and the setting of the Abbey itself is impressive. Not too many people, so we enjoyed at our leisure.

We exited the Cluny in an absolute downpour, put up our umbrellas (sorry, Sabrina), and made our way across the Seine as the rain pounded and the wind blew like crazy. We crossed to the Isle St. Louis, the little island behind the Ile de la Cite, on which Notre Dame sits.  We found a little place for lunch called La Brasserie L’Isle Saint Louis where we sat outside under the canopy and a heat lamp, watching the rain come down in buckets.  I had cassoulet, which this place is famous for, and it was a wonderfully perfect dish on a cold rainy day.  If you haven’t tried it, it’s a white bean casserole which consists of various kinds of meats – bacon, sausage, lamb, and some I did not recognize. But so deliciously rich in flavor – magnifique!  After lunch, we rambled about the streets of this picturesque island, dodging in and out of dripping shop entries to visit a gourmet cookie shop and sample some Berthillon ice cream, the best in Paris.

Paris has been called the City of Lights by some and the City of Love by others, and for good reason.  There is something luminous and romantic about Paris at night.  I will add to this and say that Paris at night in the rain is absolutely enchanting!  My advice – forget the umbrella when you can, wander the misty streets, gaze into chic shop windows, and take in the scent of the damp chestnut trees.  Make memories!  As we walked like this on our last night in Paris, we happened upon a tiny restaurant tumbling onto the street of a little side alley and decided to stop in for dinner.  Because we adore Paris in the rain, this was the first time we had actually eaten inside during our stay here.  Le Bistro St. Germain was warm and comforting, replete with red checked tablecloths covering candlelit tables.  Here, we indulged in buttery escargot in the shell, French onion soup, and a very nice fondue which came with a small plate of ham, potatoes, green beans and bread for dipping, and a carafe of mellow Burgundy.  We sat cocooned in the warmth of this place as the rain covered the wavy old windows, and we toasted to Paris.  We toasted to the rain.  And we toasted to Sabrina.