Arc de Triomphe
Arc de Triomphe [Photo / Times files]
Return to Paris

By ROGER FISCHER

© St. Petersburg Times


The more things stay the same, the more things change.

Before you scold me for misquoting a classic, carefully consider Paris.

Sure, there's all that "moveable feast" stuff and the "we'll always have Paris" cliches. Paris for many is a once-in-a-lifetime dream sojourn that stays with you forever.

I'm of a different group; I'm hooked on the place itself. I've journeyed back almost 20 times since the first time I saw Paris, on a rare snowy Sunday morning in 1969. Head up, wide-eyed, crew cut encrusted in sleet, I ignored frozen feet while navigating the City of Light for what seemed like an endless, silent day in wonderland. Landmarks and monuments that had been one-dimensional Xs on a map in 10th-grade French class were given life, each falling into place during that initial meander.

Subsequent trips, especially those that introduced new acquaintances, friends, children and loves to the magic that is this city, have begun with the usual getting-acquainted stuff: making sure Notre Dame, Saint Germain des Pres, the Champs-Elysees, Sacre Coeur and Luxembourg Gardens were all in their proper places.

Those formalities aside, each trip has revealed something new and special in a city that never sleeps on its laurels.

Plus c'est la meme chose, plus ca change.

Paris of the Gray Lines never changes its face. Paris of the Free Spirit is in constant makeover.

The stately Arc de Triomphe has stood at attention while the avenue that it surveys, the Champs Elysees, has seen some of its auto showrooms, pubs, cafes and banks give way to McDonald's, Burger King, Virgin Records MegaStore and (gasp!) Chili's.

The Colonne de Juillet seems to conduct an endless whirl of traffic around Place de la Bastille, whose edges have seen a new, often disparaged, Opera house arise -- while Tex Mex cuisine is the hot order at recently renovated, neighbor cafes.

The Obelisk at Place de la Concorde stands undisturbed as underground rumblings of new Metro and RER express lines now crisscross its path well below the pavement.

Meanwhile, figures in the statue garden in the Tuileries must have endured in horror as I.M. Pei's glass pyramid grew into the grand entrance to the Louvre and to an upscale underground shopping mall, complete with food court and parking.

Eiffel Tower
The Eiffel Tower [Photo / Times files]
Evolution has its wistful side, especially for those nostalgic for clean air. Paris' signature landmark, the Eiffel Tower, now pierces a persistent layer of smog. Even on the brightest of days it might be impossible to view from the tower's lofts the famed Sacre Coeur Basilica atop Montmartre, the hill that overlooks Paris.

All of Paris cannot be appreciated in one trip; perhaps not even in one lifetime. Other than as first-day orientations or last-day memory joggers, Paris Vision's tour buses and the Bateaux Mouches that ply the river Seine don't accomplish much more than helping create a personal version of the one-hour videotapes now on sale at souvenir storefronts.

Perhaps better -- and much cheaper -- to mail it in.

To truly discover the ever-changing Paris, hit the sidewalks and prepare to take your time -- and perhaps later, soak your feet.

Don't be intimidated by Paris' bus (autobus) and subway (Metro) systems, which can get you pretty darn close to those out-of-the-way places that make a visit unique. Although the Metro system appears simpler to decode, buses are best for a newcomer, if only to afford a little more sightseeing along the way. Besides, the Metro closes down at 12:30 a.m. while night buses (Noctambus) run all night with limited service. Each bus shelter displays diagrams of routes that pass there.

Here are some words of advice, along with some spots where Citirama doesn't dare to squeeze its doubledeckers.

Stay close to your prime destinations. Don't jump at what looks like a real deal: a bargain, luxury hotel "just outside Paris' city limits." You're not here to become a daily commuter, but to relax, to wake up in the middle of it all, whether the middle means shopping on the Grand Boulevards, losing yourself for a couple of days inside the Louvre or Musee d'Orsay, or hobnobbing with the student elite and the other hobnobbers of the Latin Quarter.

A well-placed hotel allows the convenience of an emergency mid-day nap. All areas have hotels, some noticeable only by a door to the street, that won't break your bank. Avoid staying in areas "close to the Eiffel Tower." There isn't much else close to the Eiffel Tower except the Tour itself. Tip: Don't take breakfast at your hotel room unless it's included in the price; it's often expensive and if you are ready for breakfast, get out and to a cafe. You are in Paris, after all.

Pick a destination and plan on spending at least half a day exploring it. If you're rushed, you might see a lot, but experience little.

It doesn't beckon visitors loudly, but Ile Saint-Louis is a tiny gem, a droplet of an island in the Seine, as if hiding behind Notre Dame. Its facade is innocent enough; as an island connected by bridges to the right and left banks, Saint-Louis is rimmed by unobtrusive concrete buildings all around, thereby appearing to the outsider to be a quiet, residential neighborhood devoid of curiosities. Wrong. Only a block off the river's quais, you'll find rue Saint-Louis en l'Ile, a collection of quaint and quirky storefronts, shops, studios, cafes and hotels that make up this exclusive enclave.

Ile Saint-Louis also is home to the famed Berthillon ice cream (glaces) house (31, rue Saint-Louis-en-l'Ile). It's closed Monday and Tuesday, but most neighborhood cafes serve the Berthillon brand, currently a hot item among those in the know.

To experience a coupe (sundae) with a view, visit Le Flore en l'Ile cafe (42, quai d'Orleans), located just this side of the Pont Saint-Louis foot bridge, for a late-afternoon "tea" with Notre Dame's buttresses as your scenic backdrop. A general teatime tip: A salon de the is a great place to try out those incredibly tempting French pastries that keep haunting your senses as you walk the streets from neighborhood to neighborhood. Window shop before stepping inside, just so you see the entire selection.

Some of the best stuff is free. When they assembled Paris, they didn't omit the everyday creature comforts. Among these are the parks of all sizes that turn up seemingly wherever you turn. Step through the gate, have a chair or bench and sample the life that Parisians do. No charge.

A classic view of Notre Dame can be taken in from the Square Rene-Viviani, a small park on the left bank right across the bridge from the Ile de la Cite and site of Paris' oldest tree. The square rests back-to-back with the ancient St. Julien le Pauvre church, and in the view of the cozy Hotel Esmeralda.

An exploration of the immediate area reveals some quaint, little restaurants and shops that serve varied Mediterranean cuisine.

Question: With so many eateries so close together, can any of them be any good? Polite answer: Look, smile, enjoy the festive feel of the streets, but sup elsewhere. This kind of dining you can find at the county fair back home.

Instead of an afternoon snooze at your hotel, sit back and watch Parisians engage in the ancient bowling game of boules at the Arenes de Lutece, a Gallo-Roman-era coliseum built during the first and second centuries, at 47 rue Monge in the 5th arrondissement. It's now a more-than-cozy public park with coliseum seating still intact, tucked in among apartment residences.

Stroll the Tuileries Gardens just west of the Louvre, sit and watch passersby among Luxembourg's Gardens on the edge of the Latin Quarter, wander, picnic and row in the expansive forested park and lakes of Bois de Boulogne at the city's west edge, visit the upscale Parc Monceau on boulevard de Courcelles, a short walk from the Arc de Triomphe.

Or take in an old favorite, the Places des Vosges, a square/park enclosed by arcaded shops, studios and cafes in the Marais district.

If you visit a major museum, such as the Louvre or Orsay, rent an audio guide, which you can easily share with a companion. Oddly, most exhibits are labeled only in French. These gadgets, which resemble cordless phones, allow you to punch up information as you wander about, much better than the old way of following a path dictated by a tape player.

If you are intent on making your friends and relatives envious while you're still away, purchase and send those postcards the first day, and get a ton extra for yourself, just in case your snapshots don't come out.

Aside: Try sending "instant" greetings home via the Internet. Cybercafes (pronounced: see-bear-kah-FAY) include Cyberia at the Pompidou Center, Bistrot Internet at Galeries Lafayette, Virgin Megastore on the Champs Elysees and Cafe Orbitale on rue Medicis next to the Jardins de Luxembourg. Several storefront computer shops offer Internet access, too, without shouting about it.

Average price for Internet time is a franc (about 18 cents) a minute. Conventional mail might be the bargain but e-mail (ay-MY) is instant. Okay, almost instant.

When it's time to dine -- and that means past 7:30 p.m. in Paris -- be adventurous, but know what's on the menu or on your plate. Unless you are tapping a trust fund, avoid the "gastronomic temples" such as Lasserre, Tour d'Argent, or even Maxim's. Some places require cash (pas de cartes de credit). Ask your hotel desk clerk for a recommendation, or take a chance on discovering one of your own on a back street.

It might be a good idea to take along a dictionary of French food, because many dishes are not named for their contents, but rather in tribute. For instance a la Mirabeau means a garnish of anchovy fillets, tarragon, olives, anchovy butter and sometimes watercress and straw potatoes. Mirabeau himself was a politician before the French revolution. Go figure.

One worthy guide is French Cuisine, The Gourmet's Companion by Jeffrey A. Sadowski (John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1997) It's a neatly organized dictionary of French food that leaves no clove unturned in its descriptions of dining minutiae. Another book now out of print but worth searching for at a library or used-book store is The Taste of France (Fay Sharman, Klaus Boehm and Brian Chadwick; Houghton Mifflin; 1982).

Internet users can explore www.beyond.fr/food , just for starters.

And remember: Dining is a metaphor for the French experience. Make your own way, look for something new, find something old. Arrive late, but stay awhile. Indulge.

You'll be back.

If you go

Originally published March 23, 1997