(the misadventures of an expatriate corporate dropout)

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

my first trip to France.

My first trip to France was in 1997. My daughter Johnelle, 17 at the time, was living with a family in France on a study abroad program and it was time for her return. We had agreed that we would spend her last few weeks together. It would be an opportunity for her to show me "her" Paris, and for us to explore a new region together.

Because I had only dreamed a small bit about France, I relied upon friends to recommend their favorite aspects of Paris to me. A friend and colleague, Bill Moreno, had a brother who had lived in Paris. He recommended an arrondissement (district) to me that he thought I would like. I was introduced to Le Marais, which to this day remains my favorite district in Paris. It crosses the 3rd and 4th arrondissements, on the right bank of the Seine (or le rive droite). I'm not sure if it is my favorite because it is now familiar to me or because I have watched it revive over the last 10 years. This first visit presented a district marred by graffiti and still populated with empty storefronts. Today, years later, it is a bustling mecca for shoppers, tourists, and a funky mix of young families, gay culture and the inhabitants of a centuries-old Jewish quarter. An added benefit is le Marais is one of the few districts that is bustling on a Sunday, shops included. So on good weather Sundays it is rocking!

Le Marais emerged from a marshland in the 12th century. In 1612, the Palais Royale was established here and continued until the court moved to the Louvre and Versailles. Two notable items of interest in le Marais are the Place des Vosges, the oldest square in Paris and a truly remarkable spot to laze away an afternoon. You can stroll the Arcades, have a gourmet meal at one of the notable cafés or picnic in the park. Or "une experience gastronomique" at L'Ambroiserie, a restaurant with 3 Michelin stars. On our first trip in Paris, Johnelle and I spent many an evening tromping off our excessive dinners by strolling (repeatedly) through the arcades.

One of the best evenings I have spent in Paris was viewing an outdoor film at the Place des Vosges. Near dusk, an inflatable screen was erected and we reclined on blankets in the grass to view Les Miserables.

A short walk across Rue de Turenne brings you to Rue des Francs Bourgeois, an exhilirating shopping lane where you can easily while away an entire afternoon, emptying your pocketbook in the process.

Another treat in le Marais is to explore the venerable Jewish quarter. Seek out Rue des Rosiers, home of a vibrant Jewish community for six hundred years. Here you will find bookstores, synagogues, Jewish schools and, of course, kosher food.

Johnelle had a number of good tipsters herself and planned some perfect first visit activities for us which I would also recommend to any newbie visitors. Paris is made up of endless tiny neighborhoods, each with their own personality and style. It would be easy to get lost in one or two of these and leave from your first trip without a good overview of the city as a whole.

So, try starting out with one of the open-air bus tours which traverse the city. Yes, they might be a tad touristy ... but they provide a great feel for what the city has to offer you. With the bus tours, you can disembark at various stops and explore further if the spirit moves you. Pick-up the next bus that comes along and see more.

Another completely different way to view the city is to try the Bateaux Mouches. A cool thing about these boat lines is there is also a water taxi of sorts, the Batobus. You can buy a pass and hop on to get around Paris, up and down the Seine, as an alternative to bus or metro. Very nice option in the summer.

I'll share more about my first trip to France later, especially of note was our trip on the TGV to Avignon, the papal seat for most of the 14th century. Breathtaking.

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