Paris, a paradise for foodies and museum nerds

As I mentioned in the planning post last month, my first trip of the year was to Paris. In January. Not exactly high tourist season, so it was a bit more affordable than usual. I was really nervous about the whole trip, too, because I don’t speak any French. I can read a menu relatively convincingly (not aloud though), but that is about it. Me trying to pronounce French words has, for example, this week caused my boyfriend to think I am talking about some exotic ingredient when I just tried to pronounce a French word for some food item or other…

But in the end it seems like I shouldn’t have worried. Parisians are extremely friendly and nice and helpful, even the ones who clearly had some issues with speaking English with the silly foreigner who didn’t understand their language. Almost everyone spoke English well enough to sort out what I wanted and to help me out, no matter where I was. The only time I had anyone talk French to me, even though he knew perfectly well I didn’t really understand him, was in the hotel one evening: the guy at the front desk started explaining to me the meaning of my room number, but even he did it slowly and with added gesturing, so I still understood what he was talking about. Sort of.

So if you don’t speak French: don’t worry. It will be okay. French people are a lot nicer than the stereotypes might suggest. One more example how you should not assume things based on stereotypes! (Even if said stereotype is often enforced by the French-speaking people visiting my current home town… I get more annoyed by them making me think stereotypes are sometimes right than them blocking the roads and being loud and obnoxious!)

My hotel room had a nautical theme.

I traveled to Paris with the Thalys train from Brussels. So a train from Oostende to Brussels, then another train to Paris: approximately 4 hours after leaving home, I was in my final destination. And I ended up giggling most of the way to the hotel, because, despite what I just said about stereotypes, sometimes they are fun: Paris is not very clean nor quiet, and I can fully imagine some Japanese people getting freaked out by it. Japan is so quiet and clean that coming to Paris must be quite the culture shock. But it is an old city with millions of people living in it, and it shows. There is a lot of traffic, honking cars, and people everywhere (mostly ignoring any traffic lights), and something is always being repaired or redone or torn down in almost every block. But somehow that is part of the charm, too, because you never know what you will find when you turn the corner.

I booked my hotel based on the fact that it was between the Gare du Nord train station and the Louvre, which was my main reason for visiting Paris in the first place. The price was also rather good, but that was partially because of the time of the year I was visiting. They had their price lists for the summer season in the room door, and it looked quite different. When I got there, I was pleasantly surprised to realize the whole place was quirky as heck and had tons of art and all kinds of weird things on the walls and comic book art both in the public areas and the rooms themselves. I got to sleep with Corto Maltese watching over me, as you can see in the picture above.

Okay, been there, done that now.

Since I arrived in the afternoon, I had not really planned much for the rest of the day. Not enough time for a museum trip, and I knew the next day would be spent in the Louvre anyway, so I decided just to walk to the Eiffel Tower, even if it meant an hour walk there and another hour back. Because, seriously, have you even been to Paris if you haven’t seen the Eiffel Tower? And I passed the Louvre on the way there, too, which was nice preparation for the next morning.

The tower looked rather nice in the early evening, and it was, naturally, swarmed by hordes of tourists. I was so confused by the big groups of people I didn’t even realize I was almost at the tower until I was a lot closer to it than I thought. Not so surprisingly, though, the park around the tower was looking a bit less impressive. January is not exactly the best time for greenery at these latitudes. It was nice to see the tower in real life, but I saw no reason to pay to get higher up. Just looking at it (and the city) from ground level was enough for me.

After walking all the way to the Eiffel Tower, I was feeling a bit tired. I had also walked to the train station in Oostende and then to the hotel from the Gare du Nord, after all. So, finding a food place relatively close to where I was sounded like an excellent idea. I browsed through some options online, and noticed a place called Les Cocottes, only a few minutes away, had a lot of good reviews. So I decided to go there and pamper myself a bit with a 3 course menu and a few glasses of wine.

And boy, am I happy I ended up here: the service was excellent, the food was amazing, and the price was very much right. A starter of vegetables and goat cheese in some filo pastry, a main dish of super extra buttery mash with some white fish, hidden under deceptively healthy-looking spinach, the cheese before the dessert, which was some sort of shortbread, maybe, with caramel and white chocolate. I asked for a wine suggestion from the waitress, since I didn’t know what I was going to get as a main dish, and had to drink another glass of that, too, just because it was so good. And in case you were wondering: they would have told me what was in the menu beforehand, but I asked to be surprised.

If I have to say one bad thing about the whole evening, it is this: the dessert’s shortbread-like bottom was really hard and I think I probably sprayed crumbs all over the restaurant, especially after a few glasses of wine… No real complaints, as you can tell.

The real reason for my visit.

After getting back to the hotel (with the metro, walking was too much to ask after all that food and wine), I just basically crashed to bed. I knew I had a relatively early morning, at least by my standards: I had a ticket to enter the Louvre’s Leonardo da Vinci exhibition at 9:30. So, I entered the Louvre through the iconic glass pyramids around 9:20, and since I was there on a Wednesday, when the museum is open until 21:45, left only a bit before 21. It seems I cannot be left in museums unattended, I go all kinds of crazy!

The Louvre is the world’s largest art museum. Yes, biggest in the whole wide world. And I, being not very smart, had decided to walk through all of it in one day. As you can imagine, this meant that by the evening my legs were jelly and my back was killing me (pro tip: leave your bags and jackets in the cloakroom unless you really need everything in there). But oh boy was it ever worth it.

I never knew Leonardo had drawn dragons until I saw this.

The Leonardo da Vinci exhibition was really interesting: it included a lot of his notebooks, drawings, cool “X-ray versions” of his paintings, in which you could see what the plan looked like (spoiler alert: mostly quite different from the final version), and of course a bunch of the paintings. I have always preferred his drawings and science stuff rather than the paintings, and the most famous of them, the Mona Lisa, was not a part of the exhibition anyway. It was at its usual spot, in the same museum but a few floors up. But since the exhibition ticket also included entrance to the rest of the museum, I saw that mysterious smile as well. From a distance, though: I was as not quite interested enough to queue for who knows how long to see it close enough to take a selfie with it.

But back to the exhibition: there was a lot of different things to see, some very small, which meant the free guidebook was very helpful. It helped me to keep track what I had already seen and what I still had to try and find in the middle of huge clusters of people. I had thought that by buying a ticket for the morning I might beat the worst of the crowds, since the museum only opens at 9… I was wrong. I spent approximately an hour just in the first room, queuing to see the maybe 10 works of art in there, but luckily after that the crowds began to thin a bit and I could move a bit faster and see things without trying to sneak my way to the front of a cluster of people just to have a better look at whatever they were crowding in front of. It makes me happy that the exhibition was such a success, but I wish I could have somehow been there with maybe only a third of them.

My favourite sculpture ever.

Luckily the rest of the museum was a tad less crowded, especially when I went a bit further away from the most famous artworks (such as the Mona Lisa, Venus de Milo, and my personal favourite Nike of Samothrace, among others). A few parts of the museum were closed, so I didn’t quite walk through all of it, but I really did try my best! There is just so much to see, from art to history and everything in between. I ruthlessly rushed through the parts that were less interesting to me (looking at you, ten thousand clay pots and hundreds of coins from any given historical period), only pausing for a moment if something caught my attention. That meant I could focus more on the parts that I already knew would interest me.

The problem is with the Louvre is also the fact that the rooms are so very high. Sometimes it is difficult to see all the paintings nearer to the ceiling, especially when some pesky lights hit them the wrong way. And, to make matters worse, even the ceilings are often artworks in themselves. So you can add some neck stiffness to my ailments after a day at the Louvre, but at least my brain got all the stimulation it might ever want.

This was the ceiling of a souvenir shop inside the museum...

If I had been smart, I would have made food plans for the evening before spending over 11 hours walking around a huge museum. Of course, I wasn’t smart. I had some salad and a piece of carrot cake for lunch at the Louvre, but of course by the evening I was starving again. As a side note, though: There is a Starbucks in the Louvre and that is VERY MUCH NOT OKAY.

…Sorry. I seem to have very strong feelings about this. It just feels somehow utterly wrong to me, but I can’t even really explain why. It just is no good at all. Keep your Starbucks away from my museums darnit. *sniffles dramatically*

Bibimbap time!

As I mentioned, I was half-dead on my feet after the long day, but mysteriously my legs and back felt a lot better the moment I realized I was only 15 minute walk away from a Korean bibimbap restaurant that people in general seemed to like. I think I walked there faster than I had walked anywhere in the last 4 hours before that, but the hunger most likely helped a lot, too.

It was a good choice, too: walking into the restaurant felt like I had been teleported to Asia (cannot say if it seemed like South Korea as I haven’t visited… yet!), sadly also because I felt huge and clumsy whilst trying to fit my jacket and bag somewhere out of the way without hitting the patrons trying to eat their food next to my table. But once I sat down and got my food (with extra kimchi) and Japanese beer, all was well again. Not much chance of getting Korean food near to where I live, so I tend to go eat it any chance I get when traveling.

The Notre Dame in its current, sad state.

After the Louvre escapades I only had one more full day to spend in Paris, but because I had out-cultured myself the previous day, I didn’t really do all that much. A bit of a waste, I know, but I figured I should try to make sure I won’t be completely dead when I get back home. But at least I walked to Shakespeare & Company, a bookshop no (English-speaking) book nerd should miss out on when in Paris. And it is basically next to the Notre Dame, even if after the fire there isn’t that much to enjoy there. Mostly made me a bit sad, but these things sometimes happen, no matter how tragic.

The bookshop had several signs kindly asking you to refrain from photographing the inside, probably to avoid the hordes of Instagramming travel influencers blocking the tiny hallways, so I didn’t take any. Not even of the cat. A cat in a bookshop! I could have moved in, really. Lovely place.

Can start browsing books already before entering.

Instead of moving in I just bought a few books and slowly wandered to a nearby book-themed coffee shop (Le Café Livres, no website as far as I can find) to have a few drinks and read a bit of my new books. Or at least I had them on the table while I mostly just stared brainlessly at my phone…

Shakespeare & Co also has a coffee shop right next door, but that one looked so crowded I did not even try my luck. So, while sitting there, sipping my drinks, I tried to plan a bit what to do for the rest of the day. Walking around seemed like a really bad idea, since I was still feeling the exertions of the previous day, so I just decided to hop on a metro to get to the Moulin Rouge area. Turns out you should only go there when it is dark. During a dreary January day it is very much not worth it. But at least the Indian restaurant not too far away from it was okay and very cheap (nothing to write home about, though, nor very picture-worthy), and there was an excellent just a few blocks from the Indian restaurant: a Vietnamese coffee shop!

Vietnamese coffee.

I was there right after the lunch rush, and the tiny place was mostly empty. The only other customers were just finishing their lunch, and the people working there were about to have their own lunch break. I hope I didn’t disturb them too much, but at least they were really nice about it all, or maybe they are just this amazing to everyone: I told them I’d like some coffee and that I have never had Vietnamese coffee before. They moved tables around so I could sit down easier with my hurty feet, clumsy self and big bag, and then took my order. And explained the whole coffee-making process in detail, as well as a bit of the history, which was all kinds of amazing. As was the coffee, too, strong but sweet. And I don’t even usually like sweet coffee!

In the end I talked quite a bit with the Vietnamese woman who was (one of) the owners of the shop as far as I could tell, and bought some Vietnamese coffee for home, too. It seems the Vietnamese like Robusta coffee, as do I, and because they had been so accommodating and nice and friendly and amazing, I wanted to support them for more than just buying one tiny cup of coffee. So if you are ever in Paris and want something a bit different, drink-wise or food-wise, go to Hanoï Corner.

A piece of Canada in France.

I’m slightly ashamed to say that after that I just went back to the hotel. I crashed in bed and browsed my phone, trying to get hungry so I’d have a good excuse to get my tired butt outside again. That meant I had an excellent chance to do very thorough research on where to eat, which is how I found out there was a poutine place not too far from the hotel. The choice was made rather fast after that.

I just took the very basic poutine, even if La Maison de la Poutine has a lot of fancier (and meatier) options as well. I just wanted to see how their basic thing works, and didn’t really feel like having a food overdose anyway. I mean, even more of a food overdose than you get with just a basic poutine portion, at least.

Since France is rather far away from Canada, they have to make their own cheese mixture to use in the poutine. That meant my portion arrived to the table with a cover on it, and I had to wait some 5 minutes for the cheese to melt a bit. 5 long, long minutes of just looking at your steaming hot portion, willing the cheese to melt faster. But at least I had a Bud to keep me company while waiting, and I could also people watch a bit, since the place was small and everyone is just seated wherever there might be space. And the food was worth it, too. Found out while eating that they had, in fact, won the best international poutine award at some point, meaning poutine from outside of Canada. Not bad, Frenchies!

The French do like their bookshops.

On the last (half of a) day, my train late in the afternoon, so I still had a bit of time to walk around Paris before heading to the train station. So I decided, not necessarily very smartly, to drag around my luggage through a bit longer route to the station. I went through several of the cute covered passages relatively early in the morning, and I think that was the perfect time for me. I didn’t want to buy anything anyway, so I could just enjoy them while they were quiet, as most of the shops were still closed.

The only time I felt a bit miffed I was walking around so early was when I saw this amazing Japanese restaurant with a huge wall painting with cats, done in old-fashioned Japanese style. Someone was in there cleaning the tables already, but since I had had breakfast only an hour ago and the place was probably not going to open in the next 30 minutes or so anyway, I just decided to continue walking towards the station and find something to eat nearer to there.

The food would have had to be really bad for me to feel sad in this place.

Still, I hope I can find the cat wall restaurant again if I ever go back to Paris. It looked too cute not to try it out, given the chance. And maybe try and take a proper picture of the place instead of this glaring mess, but I’m sure you understand the appeal nevertheless!

In the end, I went to a Vietnamese-style street food bar to have my lunch, again lured in by good reviews. I was slightly surprised that the women working there seemed very much French rather than Vietnamese, but the food itself nice, and very affordable. I got technically 3 courses, but the appetizer and dessert were so tiny they barely really counted. The main bowl was rather big, so I didn’t have to leave hungry, at least. The main dish could have been a bit warmer, but it tasted very good, for being something relatively healthy, heh. I think the other woman working there was there for the first day, and the more experienced one was doing at least three things at any given time, so I think both the food and service might usually be better. And they were still super nice and friendly and even tried to translate their menu for me!

Not super photogenic, but healthy and tasty.

I felt guilty sitting around at the otherwise empty restaurant after I had finished my food, so I still had some time to kill before my train. I ended up going for a proper dessert (meaning not healthy like the fruit salad I had already eaten) and some coffee at a really big bistro-style restaurant right next to Gare du Nord, since I figured staying close to the station was a good idea. Too bad that dessert was the worst food experience of the whole trip: my Nutella tiramisu didn’t really taste like Nutella nor tiramisu, and the cappuccino was very expensive for what it was. And the service wasn’t especially good either, but I guess it doesn’t have to be, since the place is so close to the international train station that they probably never see 90% of their clientele again.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is 20200124_110056-e1581888114833.jpg
Since this was in January, most shops still had their Christmas decorations up.

So what did I learn on this trip? French people are extremely nice and accommodating, at least as long as you apologize for not speaking French and are otherwise polite. The food in Paris is mostly excellent, unless, of course, you make the mistake of going into a really touristy place. The food might still be okay, but the price will sour the experience, if nothing else will. The Louvre is absolutely amazing and definitely worth every cent you pay for it, but just keep in mind you will be there with thousands of other people on any given day.

Now I sort of want to go to Paris again at some point, to see a few of the other museums, such as the Musée d’Orsay to see some Monets, Van Goghs, Gauguins etc., Quai Branly to get to know the indigenous art of Africa, Asia, Oceania and the Americas, the Picasso museum for obvious reasons, the Natural History Museum to satisfy my inner biology nerd, the Guimet Museum to see some cool Asian art, and the Science & Industry Museum to satisfy my inner science nerd. So it seems I could easily spend a week there just visiting museums and eating dishes from a different country every night. Sounds like heaven to me. At least Paris is relatively close, so this is very much a plan that I could easily make happen (once I’m feeling flush again).

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