It was raining when we got there. A slow, steady drizzle that reminded me of November exactly three years ago when I lived here – Autumn in Paris holds many memories for me. Revisiting old haunts and uncovering some new ones, this time all of our ramblings were infused with a little bit of enchantment – a hint of wonder – as we went in search of the city’s greenest hidden gems.
Wind your way through the leaf-spattered, chilly cobble-stone pathways of Père Lachaise, the largest garden cemetery in Paris, located in the 20th Arrondissement. It is a strangely magical and calming place, hence our footsteps here to visit some well-loved names – Oscar Wilde and George Bizet among them – buried between great stone monuments and wreathed, candle-laden angels, with flowers at their feet, each tomb etched with the messages of families and friends gone by. I recommend picking up a map from the tourist office near the main entrance on Rue du Repos so that you can locate them!
Many people say that the best time to visit Paris’s green spaces is the Spring or Summer, because it is so much more pleasant to be outside, but I disagree – come in Autumn and you will see a city decked in a new woollen coat and heading out to hit the season with jewels in its hair.
After we had wandered back down the hill, I was pretty hungry and I knew exactly where to go – to find the best boulangeries in town. Retracing some familiar routes, we came out at metro stop ‘Abbesses’ – my former local station.
Place des Abbesses has some truly mouth-watering bistros and cafes, all of which I faithfully sampled at one point or another, but it was the two all-time favourite purveyors of fine baked goods that I was in search of – for the best croissants chocolat-pistache in town.
‘Coquelicot’ is one of them, located just opposite ‘Le Saint Jean’ restaurant in Place des Abbesses. The coffee here is very good – I always order a café au lait and a croissant pistache-chocolat or a croissant aux amandes – an almond croissant. They are buttery and sweet and melt-in-your-mouth good.
Next up we have the smart, blue-shuttered boulangerie ‘Au Levain d’Antan’, which once did the biggest croissants in town. I didn’t see them this time round, but it is possible they had sold out! The pastries here and little tarts are very yummy – no passer-by can fail to notice the bright wares in the window!
After I had taken sufficient, frosty-lipped pleasure in being a gourmonde à la Parisienne, the streets shining with rain water beckoned for a spot of strolling.
One of my favourite things to do in Paris is wander the streets looking for open doorways into the huge hidden courtyards behind them. A lot of the great wooden doors are left propped open and, with a little subtlety, you can slip inside. During the working hours, these courtyards and some of Paris’s streets are eerily quiet and peaceful compared with the roar of traffic that goes on down near the Rue de Rivoli for example, and I like to take full advantage of it. Click here to see where we walked!
The sun came out as we wandered, blessing our travels.
These garden courtyards were found close to the Musée de la Vie romantique, near the metro stop Pigalle, at the foot of Montmartre in the 9th Arrondissement. The museum, which is made visible only by an unassuming sign and an old tree that overhangs the street, is one of the most stunning in Paris and we glimpsed it through the gate, but it was closed for repairs when we visited.
We decided to find our hotel, and doubled back on ourselves, past metro stop Place de Clichy, and along Rue des Dames until we came to Hotel Eldorado, one of Paris’ best-kept hideaway secrets. I chose this particular hotel because it was one of the picks on Messy Nessy Chic’s Paris Hotel Guide, which I greatly admire and has helped me sample several other gorgeous stays in the past – but perhaps most importantly for me on this trip, Hotel Eldorado has the most beautifully tranquil garden. Its fairy lights, leafy bowers and ferns shading you overhead, clambering up the sides of the white-washed buildings surrounding the courtyard, makes you feel as though you have stumbled upon an urban paradise, one where the pixies are just away for the day.
Through this door was our room. We crossed the courtyard and down some bent stone steps through the hotel’s restaurant to find ourselves in the quiet garden with deserted tables and chairs everywhere. All we could hear was birdsong and the faintest tinkle of cutlery from the kitchen.
The room itself was clean and small, with wooden varnished floorboards that were warm and creaked wherever you walked, and bright floor-to-ceiling bay windows that we flung open to let in the fresh, crisp air. I leant out to take in the view that overlooked the courtyard. Red heavy velvet curtains tied with cord and translucent white layers gave it a hint of luxury.
I was craving a drink and a chance to see the river again, so we grabbed our respective reads (mine was Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, which I had bought that morning at Shakespeare & Co.) and headed to a dear restaurant on the Right Bank, the Restaurant Louis-Phillipe, nestled in a quiet corner of the Rue du Pont Louis-Philippe with a view of the Seine.
I was very happy to be back at the place that serves the best Kir Royales in the city, as you can probably tell!
Next it was on to the park that will forever hold a special place in my heart – the Bois de Vincennes in the 12th arrondissement. We got off at Metro stop Porte Dorée, but you can also get off at Michel Bizot or Porte de Charenton to get where we’re going quickly. Here is where some real magic begins.
The Bois de Vincennes is home to one of the most atmospheric treasures in the city – the Lac Daumesnil and its two little island getaways, Ile de Bercy and Ile de Reuilly, which you can access by a single footbridge. You see that little temple that looks like a forgotten Roman ruin? That’s where we’re going.
As we skirt the sides of the lake, I can’t help but marvel at the incredible colours in the landscape around us – and the playful characters along the way!
Here we are…
As we near the temple, we hear an unearthly sound. As we come upon it, two friends, sitting with their backs to each other, are singing – bathing in the sound of their voices echoing off the stone pillars and listening to the lake around them.
Exploring nearby, we come across a winding stone staircase that beckons down beside the grotto. Guess what we find…
It’s a grotto that has been carved out of the the stone underneath the temple itself! This is the artificial grotto beneath the Temple d’Amour, both designed for Haussman’s 1855 reinvention of the park as led by the engineer Jean-Charles Alphand, who also built the gardens of the Champs-Élysées, the boulevard of the Paris Observatory, Parc Monceau and the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont.
In the bright Autumn sunlight, the only witnesses to my exclamations of joy are the swans that glide effortlessly among the reeds and out towards the sunbathed lake. I found a rock that was warm in the sun and settled in to take in the view.
As we leave the temple and our grotto behind, I decide I need another Kir. A girl can’t do too much sight-seeing without her Kir. We stop off at Le Temps des Cerises at 31 Rue de la Cerisaie, a beautifully French picturesque restaurant in the Marais, which also does a great cheeseboard as it turns out, before exploring the markets with their wares mismatched in the windows and on street corners along the Rue Charles V and Rue Saint-Paul.
By the time we leave our ramblings round the Marais it’s getting late and there’s one more place I’d like to visit before we retire to our garden room with a view for the evening – an establishment that strangely has a bit of a connection with my old school – Christ’s Hospital in West Sussex.
Harry’s Bar – purportedly the oldest cocktail bar in Europe, a claim it reinforces characteristically with the wooden panelled walls laden with the coats of arms of the oldest universities and schools in England.
I wind my way to the back of the bar and find….
My school’s shield!
A cocktail to celebrate. I couldn’t tell you what was in it, having sampled some of the fine liquors on offer we were already slightly unsure as to the exact amount we’d spent and the genteel bartender, understanding to some extent the confusing financial situation, was kind enough to give us this one sur la maison.
Using the stunning Palais Garnier as our landmark, we manage to find our way home along the streets of Paris at about 2 AM. I can’t say I was the most quiet or enjoyable companion to be around at this point – it was incredibly cold and windy and even the fortifications of Harry’s Bar were not warming me. Thankfully when we got back to our hotel the view that greeted us in the garden when everyone else had gone to bed and only the fairy lights remained was enough to send me off to dreamy sleep.
Until next time, ma chérie.