I was having what my friend Harriet Welty calls a "Paris moment. " Sinking into a red armchair on the outdoor terrace of the Café Marly at the Louvre, I watched I. M. Pei's glass pyramid shimmering...
I was having what my friend Harriet Welty calls a “Paris moment.”
Sinking into a red armchair on the outdoor terrace of the Café Marly at the Louvre, I watched I.M. Pei’s glass pyramid shimmering in the sunlight. A waiter in a black suit brought coffee and a silver pitcher of hot milk.
It was 8:30 a.m. In a few hours, the terrace would be filled with well-dressed Parisians sipping wine, smoking and lunching on meals priced far above my budget, but for now, and a little more than what the new Paris Starbucks charges for a tall latte in a paper cup, the front-row seat was mine for as long as I wanted.
My bill was $6, but as Welty, the author of two books on the French and their customs, taught me, there are times when getting your money’s worth in Paris has nothing to do with how much you spend.
Six dollars for a seat facing the museum’s palace courtyard was a bargain, considering a tourist cafe on a busy street around the corner charged $5 for a view of parked cars and a perfume shop.
The coffee at the Louvre was a luxury I made up for in the next few days as I went on a mission to find ways to stretch the value of the shrinking dollar in one of the world’s most expensive cities.
C’est la vie to the euro’s 30 percent rise against the dollar in the past two years.
What about how much the French are supposed to hate Americans, or Americans are supposed to hate the French? Pure hype, at least from my own experience and what other travelers have told me. The idea of not spending time in Paris never crossed my mind when I had a few days to spare on my way back from two weeks in Eastern Europe.
I wasn’t alone.
“We keep talking about going other places, but Paris always draws us back,” said Sandy Howell, who visited with her husband, Bob, a high-school principal, for the fourth time in April. Howell lives in Peoria, Ill., and moderates an Internet discussion group called Paris Qui, where she passes on money-saving tips.
“In spite of our concerns about how we would be received by the French, we went to Paris last year. Our concerns turned out to be groundless, and we enjoyed our trip immensely,” she said. “This year, our concerns were monetary. Our trip definitely cost us more.”
The couple coped by buying a one-week pass for public buses and the Métro ($17.50), using a phone card to make calls back home ($18 for 120 minutes), discovering new neighborhoods on guided walking tours ($12), eating their main meal at lunch instead of dinner, visiting museums on free days and booking their own train tickets to Chartres to see the cathedral there rather than taking a tour.
“We could probably have saved more money by going to the smaller towns or even other countries, but Paris is where we wanted to be. It comes down to research,” Howell said. “The more it costs, the more research I need to do, but I enjoy the challenge.”
So do I. So tag along as I flip through my notebook and dig out some of my best finds.
Meeting the French
The euro’s climb has affected hotel prices. “We haven’t raised our prices in three years,” a clerk at the two-star Hotel de la Place des Vosges said when I asked to see a room. But a double now costs $128 per night, based on current exchange rates, compared to $90 in 2001.
I had booked a hotel in the heart of the Latin Quarter for $90 a night, then on the spur-of-the-moment, canceled the reservation, and contacted Alcôve & Agapes, a bed-and-breakfast service that offers more than 100 rooms in Paris homes, with hosts ranging from artists to grandmothers.
I chose “grandmother,” and met Claudine, 72, who welcomes guests in the century-old building near the Gare de Lyon train station where she’s lived for 40 years.
My large double room with high ceilings and a flowered balcony was furnished with a double bed, antique bureau and oak table and chairs. I shared a large bathroom with another guest, a woman from Chicago. It was a minor inconvenience considering that for around $80 including breakfast, I became part of a real Parisian neighborhood.
Around the corner was a Métro stop with connections to the Louvre, Champs- Elysées, the Opéra and all the museums, sites and shopping areas of central Paris.
A block away was an Internet cafe and a neighborhood street market. I wandered the stalls, chatting with farmers, nibbling on samples of foie gras and inhaling the smell of cheeses and fresh bread. Each day I walked 10 minutes along the rue de Lyon to the Bastille, a hip neighborhood known for its clubs and cafes. Nearby was one of my favorite Paris neighborhoods, Le Marais. This is the Jewish quarter, and I love its wine bars, tea salons, galleries and browsing shops devoted to selling only paper, or chocolate or musical instruments.
Best of all was getting to know Claudine, a cheery woman who likes to listen to Sting and Arabian music, displays an American flag in her bedroom, and loves watching travel videos. She’s learning English, and tacked to her refrigerator was a note that said “Would you like some tea?” a phrase she practiced on me several times a day.
Over a breakfast of croissants and coffee, we chatted as Claudine drank her tea by dipping an espresso cup into a large bowl. She showed off photos of her daughter and grandchildren who live in San Antonio, and a shoebox filled with postcards from her visitors from around the world.
“Today I’m walking to Bercy (a nearby neighborhood where old wine warehouses have been converted into shops and restaurants) to buy you a gift,” she announced one morning. She returned with a bag containing a block of Savon de Marseille, an olive-oil soap from the south of France.
I felt as if I had found a new home in Paris, and best of all, a new friend.
I’d like to say that I went to as many museums as I could, but the truth is that my favorite Paris pastime is people-watching. It’s an activity that costs anywhere from $2-$6, the price of a cafe crème, glass of wine, beer or another cold drink at a sidewalk cafe.
“It’s what Parisians do all the time,” said Françoise Foret, 35, a Paris native. “They order a coffee and a glass of water and sit there for hours.”
Location and neighborhood determine the price as well as the people. Unless you’re into watching other tourists, skip the Champs-Elysées and the new Starbucks next to a discount luggage shop near the Paris Opéra, and wander down a back street or ride the Métro a few stops and explore a different area.
One of my favorites is the Bastille. This time, I stumbled onto an arts-and-crafts fair and an antiques brocante, the French equivalent of an outdoor flea market, before wandering into the Bar L’An Vert near the rue de Lappe. I sat near the window on a chair upholstered in green velvet watching a man in red patent sandals, red socks, blue jeans and T-shirt practice his pick-up lean against the bar as an episode of “Fashion TV” played on a video monitor.
Another evening I whiled away an hour at the sprawling Café des Phares as roller-bladers whizzed by and a man with shoulder-length white hair played La Bamba on his amplified guitar. Three older men, one wearing plaid Bermuda shorts, followed with trumpets and tubas. I dropped a few coins into their paper cups, thrilled with the entertainment they provided literally for the price of a song.
Eating on a budget
Ten minutes away on the Métro from Place Saint Michel, the Latin Quarter’s Tourist Central, is Le Bouquet d’Alesia, a brasserie filled with Parisians dining in pairs or alone in the company of a book and a $3 glass of Burgundy.
There are hundreds of corner cafes like this one where food is served any time of day. (No waiting until 7 p.m., the earliest most restaurants open for dinner.) Two can eat a modest meal for about $20 a person including wine and dessert.
I was with my friend Jennefer, who had been living in the neighborhood the past six months. The cafe tables in the front were filled with people smoking and deep in conversation over cups of espresso. Most places like this have a back section, and when we asked, a waiter in a long white apron and black bow tie led us to a quiet table set with folded pink napkins and pink table clothes.
We chatted the next two hours over salads sprinkled with warm goat cheese and grilled sweet peppers and glasses of chilled Chablis. A tip wasn’t expected, but we left one anyway. Perhaps it was because we were away from the tourist hub-bub, but our waiter smiled and spoke English in a friendly rather than patronizing way I remembered from past visits.
“You have a wonderful experience at places like these,” Jennefer said. “It’s more personal than a restaurant at Michelin star prices and you get to enjoy really good food.”
When it came time for a splurge, three of us headed one evening for Le P’tit Troquet, a tiny, no-smoking restaurant with a handful of green leather chairs and marble tables on the rue de l’Exposition near the Eiffel Tower.
The fixed-priced menu was $35 per person. My chilled tomato soup, fish course and coffee and licorice ice cream were first-rate, but best of all was the show that followed. We walked off our meal with a stroll to the Eiffel Tower to see the lights that twinkle after dark for 10 minutes every hour. On a night like this, the view from the bottom was more impressive than a trip to the top, and best of all, it was free.
Père-Lachaise Cemetery is the final destination for most who venture to the outer reaches of the city, but nearby is a slice of ethnic Paris most tourists never see. Since my friend Harriet lives in the neighborhood, I asked her to go exploring with me.
We set out along the rue Ménilmontant to Belleville. Once a village that was the birth place of Maurice Chevalier and Edith Piaf, the neighborhood is a mish-mash of high-rises, couscous parlors and markets filled with shoppers dressed in flowered headscarves and flowing robes.
Rue Ménilmontant rises steeply uphill from the main boulevards of Paris. (Bus No. 96 from Place St. Michel will take you here). It’s one of the longest streets in Paris, and walking along it is like passing through Africa, Algeria, Egypt, China and Turkey. In shop windows we spotted belly-dancing costumes, water pipes and leather slippers with turned up toes.
At Diyananko, an African artists’ collective, we picked up handfuls of bracelets made from straw and wire for $4 each, then detoured off Ménilmontant to Cité de l’Ermitage, a cobblestone passageway with neat cottages and tidy gardens left over from the days when this was an agricultural area and Belleville was a small village.
Mint tea and sticky sweets made from pistachios, dates and honey tempted us at Les Noces d’Or, an Algerian pastry shop with a few tables and photos of old Algiers on the walls. Near Place Maurice Chevalier, across from a Catholic church and an Arab cafe, we climbed terraced steps to the top of Parc de Belleville and took in a panoramic view of the Paris skyline.
In the distance were the hazy outlines of the Eiffel Tower, the Panthéon and Pompidou Center symbols of the beautiful, historic, famous Paris everyone knows. I wouldn’t miss any of it, but I was glad I had ventured off the beaten path.
I road buses, took the Métro, walked, explored, got lost and discovered some parts of Paris that were new to me. I stretched myself and by doing so, found that my dollars stretched, too.
Carol Pucci: 206-464-3701 or email@example.com.