Paris for the holidays

This article appears on page 44 of the November 2009 issue.
View of the city from the Arc de Triomphe.

by James Ure, Salt Lake City, UT

“For your birthday,” said my companion, Judy Martin, “I want to buy you dinner — in Paris on New Year’s Eve.” This was her gift to me in August ’08. Our holiday week in the City of Light began on Dec. 29.

Getting settled

Judy had spent a lot of time researching flights on the Internet, and as a result she was able to secure two business-class round-trip tickets from Salt Lake City to Paris using only 95,000 miles from each of our Delta Air Lines SkyMiles accounts. We slept during the long haul over the Atlantic, awakening as the jetliner descended through the winter mist.

Judy near Notre Dame.

We landed at Charles de Gaulle International Airport in gloomy, cold rain and took a taxi (€80, or $117) to our hotel, the Jeu de Paume (phone 33 [0] 1 43 26 14 18), located on the Île St. Louis. It is one of few hotels on this centrally located little island in the River Seine — and the most expensive of them (€285, or $420, a night).

I have also stayed at the nearby Hôtel des Deux-Iles (phone 33 [0] 1 43 26 13 35), a charming, small hotel with rooms at a lower price (E189 a night), but we had heard about Jeu de Paume from friends and wanted something special and romantic. We were not disappointed.

The hotel, converted from the former clubhouse of King Louis XIII’s “tennis” court, dates back to the 1600s. It was remodeled in 1987 and tastefully blends 300-year-old beams and unobtrusive modern glass. It has a bar, a sauna and an exercise area plus a comfortable mezzanine where we often curled up with books.

Breakfast is offered for an additional €18 ($23) per person per day. We opted instead for croissants and coffee at one of the many nearby cafés for fewer than E12 for the two of us.

A meal to celebrate

The gracious and excellent concierge at our hotel had prearranged Judy’s New Year’s Eve dinner for me at a nearby restaurant, Le Fin Gourmet, operated by David Magniez and Yohann Gerbout.

Our rental apartment in Montmartre.

Le Fin Gourmet is small, and the attention to detail was perfect. We started with a fabulous pâté of foie gras wrapped around a country pâté, which was followed by a delicate avocado-and-lobster brochette.

The main plate was described on the menu as a “hamburger.” It consisted of two “buns” of herbed polenta with a “hamburger” of finely sliced, spiced venison and goose liver. I liked it, but Judy was less thrilled because of the goose liver.

The price and menu were fixed for the evening, and it came to €100 each ($128.50), not including wine (another E30). Happy birthday!

Four hours later, after our seventh course, we walked out into the cold of New Year’s Eve bundled in wool and fleece, with scarves pulled high. The temperature was about 28°F, but the humidity and wind off the Seine seemed to send the cold piercing through our layers of clothing. Light snow added to the chill.

We had planned to find a place to welcome the New Year while watching the fireworks at the Eiffel Tower, but we were cold to the bone and decided to return to our hotel. As we fell asleep, we heard the distant popping of fireworks and we knew 2009 had arrived.

Exploring the city

We love to get our exercise by exploring, and, Judy reminds me, exercise enables us to eat more. Paris and fine dining go hand in hand, and so do Paris and walking, at least for us.

A different view of the Eiffel Tower.

On New Year’s Day we set out on foot to explore Paris, moving at a brisk pace in order to stay warm. We made our way through the litter of hundreds of champagne bottles, stopping briefly among the huge crowds at the Eiffel Tower, then made our way back to the hotel, with stops at small cafés for coffee and chocolat chaud (E7 for two). We estimated our total walk at about 17 kilometers, or 12 to 13 miles.

Over the next few days we explored the Paris neighborhoods. We walked to Montmartre and the Sacre Coeur church, where, even in the bitter cold, the artists sat amidst the crowds doing caricatures, stopping to breathe on their icy fingers from time to time.

Suddenly we heard loud, angry voices. A mock argument was underway at the foot of the funicular. This diversion was designed to pull the crowd closer so it could more easily be worked by pickpockets. We had been warned about this, so we sidled off to the nearby tiny, quiet Rose Café, where we had salads and bread and were introduced to a new taste treat: steaming-hot vanilla tea (total, E14).

Discovering a delight

The neighborhood along rue Montorgueil had been described to us as a delightful slice of Parisian life, and we were not disappointed. We mingled with the locals as they shopped at the charming little patisseries and boulangeries that tempt with mouth-watering displays.

Eggs on display in a Paris market.

Where Montorgueil turned into rue des Ponts Carreaux, we stopped at a place for lunch and found one of the delights of the trip: Les Petits Carreaux, a tiny brasserie where the food was simple but wonderful. I had pork and noodles and Judy had chicken and noodles, both dishes served steaming hot in a lively, packed atmosphere of bright lights and rain-streaked windows. Our lunch came to a total of €34 ($43).

As we left, the crowd at the bar shouted out happy New Year wishes to the two traveling Americans, putting to rest any doubts about Parisian hospitality. We never experienced anything but friendliness during our trip.

At Place Vendôme, the upscale shopping area, huge Christmas “chandeliers” of green-blue light were suspended in the black night over the vast plaza. Lights twinkled on the nearby Hôtel de Ville (city government offices), adding to the festive holiday feeling.

Another great walk was out along Canal St. Martin, where we promptly got lost in the fog and rain and giggled as we felt our way down the streets.

Heading back, we ended up in the neighborhood of Les Petits Carreaux and so stopped for lunch once again, this time for beef steak and country fried potatoes (the lunch special, E34 for two). I will never forget the potatoes — golden and crisp on the outside, soft and steaming inside.


We recommend two restaurants that we were guided to by our hotel concierge. The first is Le Procope (13 rue de l’Ancienne Comédie) in the Latin Quarter. Established in 1686, it is said to be the oldest restaurant in France. Judy had an excellent onion soup and I had a so-so coq au vin, which came to €117 ($149) for two, including wine.

The second recommendation, and one of our very favorites, was Bofinger (5-7 rue de la Bastille), near the Bastille, a bright brasserie where seafood is served piled high on ice on a tiered platter. Bofinger is famous for its crème brûlée and andouilette sausage. Our excellent meal cost €76 ($97), including wine.

In spite of the cold, we waited in line to get into the Musée d’Orsay, with its Impressionist paintings, and we wrapped our scarves around our faces in order to take a Sunday boat ride on the Seine, kissing beneath the Pont Marie for good luck. Mostly, we just walked and loved every minute of it.

A fond farewell

Eiffel Tower viewed from the Arc de Triomphe

On our final night in Paris it started snowing. As we walked from Notre Dame toward our hotel, we came upon a delightful sight: on the buttress of the bridge connecting the two islands, someone had made a tiny snowman, perfectly formed, with eyes and a happy smiling mouth that bade us to return soon.

One note on the holidays in Paris — we thought that after New Year’s Day the crowds would diminish and we would have no difficulty getting into museums and other points of interest. We were wrong. All of Europe seemed to be in Paris for the holidays, and the crowds and cold made waiting in line uncomfortable.

We recommend buying a Paris museum pass (six days for E64), which allows direct entry to the major sites such as the Louvre, the Pompidou, Notre Dame and the Arc de Triomphe without having to wait in line.

Altogether, our 7-day trip cost about $4,000 for the two of us, thanks to the SkyMiles bargain that Judy found.

We think Paris is a special treat anytime of year.