The trouble with going to Paris at Christmas is, unless you are rich, you can't go every year. Which presents a problem. We went to Paris last Christmas, and this year the holiday already feels anticlimactic.
Oh, I'm spinning the traditional stay-at-home holiday, with the big tree and the yule log, a feast for family and friends. I'm pointing out the Christmas parties we won't miss, the local traditions we can enjoy. But even I am having trouble buying it.
How can you beat a city alive with light and festivity. With two-story carousels seemingly by every corner, ice skating in front of the Hôtel de Ville, the bells of Notre Dame on Christmas night, fir trees in every square, branches glimmering with shiny bows?
How can even the most elaborately decorated house compare with the blazing avenue of the Champs-Élysées, the Louvre carved bronze against the night, or the Eiffel Tower suddenly fizzing with champagne light, reflected in the windows on every nearby street?
My famous date-nut bread and gingerbread cookies can't compete with a hundred bûches de Noël (yule log cakes) in every shop window, with macaroons and pain au chocolat (chocolate-filled croissants), with sizzling crepes and croque-monsieurs (grilled ham and cheese sandwiches) beckoning. Not to mention the best bread in the world.
Paris is Christmas, bright, gorgeous and happy with every building, every street decorated in its own architectural charm. The lights and bows seem almost redundant.
Yes, it gets dark early in December, but it doesn't matter. Paris, the City of Light, is just as much fun in the dark as on a summer's day.
It's also just as much fun for kids as adults. We had heard the French would rather deal with dogs than children but found that nothing could be further from the truth. The city is dotted with playgrounds, carousels and parks. With 8-year-old Danny, 6-year-old Fiona and 2-month-old Darby in tow, we were treated with patience and courtesy everywhere we went. We didn't chance any fancy restaurants, but in every boulangerie the kids were encouraged to practice their French. In every museum line, we were pulled up to the front, told we could not wait. Non, non, not in the cold, not with the baby.
We spent 16 glorious days, arriving the week before Christmas last year. It turned out to be an excellent time because virtually no one is in town except Parisians. (This changes the week after Christmas, so it's best to do all your touristy things early.)
We still faced lines, of course, but crowds were thin at many attractions during evening hours -- the Louvre stayed open until 10 p.m. on Wednesdays and Fridays, and the Musée d'Orsay until 9:45 p.m. on Thursdays.
Although we reserved some adult-only time for the Picasso and the Carnavalet museums, the two biggest draws have built-in kid attractions. The D'Orsay is an old train station, and the Louvre is, well, the Louvre, and even kids are impressed, especially by the evening; there's something exciting, forbidden almost, about being in a museum at night.
With our niece Katie along as a quasi-nanny, we needed some space, so we rented a wonderful three-bedroom flat in the Marais district. It was the quintessential Parisian apartment, with high, sculpted ceilings, charming fireplaces, wood floors and big shuttered windows looking out on a marvelous medieval street.
The Marais is one of the city's older neighborhoods, the former Jewish quarter. From our street, two blocks from the Seine, it was an easy walk to the Bastille, Île St.-Louis, Notre Dame, pretty much everywhere, actually, though a Métro stop was steps away.
We used the Métro for trips to the catacombs and Château de Vincennes -- a fabulous park and the only castle in Paris -- and occasionally at night when we were tired. Mostly, we walked. Because how can you not walk in Paris?
With 16 days to enjoy ourselves, we didn't have to jam a million sights into one day. We meant to get on one of the many double-decker tour buses that roam the city, but the streets were too seductive. On a bus, we would have missed the chestnut vendors, the crepe makers and all the lovely scarves.
Using Lonely Planet and the excellent "Paris for Families" (Larry Lain, Interlink Books) as guides, we headed for one or two major destinations each day. But we took our time, surrendering to distractions, especially those that made the kids appreciate where we were and what we were doing.
So we got to see Monet's "The Water Lilies" at the Musée de l'Orangerie, but first we explored the playground and cafes of the Tuileries Gardens and rode the giant Ferris wheel on the Place de la Concorde. I was halfway up before I remembered I was afraid of heights. But the kids loved it so much, they went on it a second time at night, when, I was told, the views were spectacular.
We spent as much time on the escalators at the Pompidou Centre as we did in the galleries, because they go up, up, up and down, down, down glass tubes, and how cool is that?
We "found" the Eiffel Tower by sight, following it through twisting streets behind Napoleon's Tomb, the rule being that Mama couldn't look at the map.
Museums and shopping
Another day, Danny and my husband, Richard, contentedly explored the Musée de l'Armée (the Army Museum) while Fiona, Darby and I went Christmas shopping, stopping at the renowned Angelina's for chocolat chaud (hot chocolate).
We all rode the Métro out to Montmartre, but the funicular that runs up the steep hill was broken. So the kids raced each other up the many steps, leaving them flushed and subdued enough to take quiet interest in the Basilica Sacré Coeur for a time. When they got bored, the steps leading up to the church were full of street performers and pigeons.
Fiona was so impressed with the neighborhood's artistic scene that she begged to sit for one of the many quick-draw artists hawking instant portraits and paid for it with her own money.
The chilly air, the early darkness and, of course, Christmas lent a special air to churches and museums, which in summertime might have been considered bo-ring. At the Louvre, Danny pointed out all the "Christmas cards" -- the paintings of the Madonna and child, the Annunciation, the crèche that decorate so many holiday notes.
With baby Darby in tow, we felt particularly drawn to the baby Jesus and all cherubim and made our way through the long gallery choosing our favorite angels. Neither Danny nor Fiona was much impressed by the Mona Lisa. "It's just a picture of a lady," Danny said to the hilarity of those clustered around the painting. "It doesn't even have any spears."
Richard took him to see "The Raft of the Medusa," which made a more favorable impression.
The giant tree in front of Notre Dame beat even the one at Rockefeller Center, and we gazed at it at least once a day. Inside, the crèche and angels were as appealing to the kids as the soaring interior and amazing stained glass were to the adults. We went to Christmas Eve Mass at the cathedral, which turned out to be a mistake. Notre Dame is open throughout the service, so it is hideously crowded and tourists dutifully shuffle in and out, making it impossible to enjoy the service.
Still, the most memorable part of the trip for the kids was climbing the towers of Notre Dame. I couldn't go up those narrow, steep steps with the baby, but Richard took the other kids, and they still talk about peering over the shoulders of gargoyles and seeing the bells up close.
FRIES WITH A DIFFERENCE
Compromise is the heart of family travel, so many crepe desires were indulged. (Sugar and honey were pronounced the two best). Danny was allowed to buy McDonald's french fries on the Champs-Élysées, amid much adult groaning until we discovered they were the most delicious McDonald's fries we'd ever tasted.
In return for walking up the long boulevard full of "boring stores," the kids got to drop many euro coins into the binoculars atop the Arc de Triomphe, to scan the Paris that spread before them. We explored the charming, quiet Île St.-Louis, one little toy shop at a time, and found Maison Berthillon, which possibly makes the best ice cream in the world. You'll know it by the long lines, even in the winter. We admired the beautifully decorated Les Galeries Lafayette department store from afar.
Families could tour Paris park by park, and to a certain extent we did, finding pocket playgrounds in the Marais, the Place Dauphine on the Île de la Cité and the Jardin du Luxembourg. We loved the Luxembourg Garden so much we went three or four times.
European playgrounds are more entertaining than those in the U.S. Maybe it's because European parents are less litigious. The equipment is made out of wood and steel (not plastic), ropes allow kids to swing like Tarzan, and there are huge spiderweb-like climbing structures.
Admission at the Luxembourg playground is about $2.20, but it's worth it. Nearby is a puppet theater, carousel and a cafe that has chocolat chaud.
Eventually, of course, we had to head home to our beautiful flat. Inevitably, we'd stop by a boulangerie to pick up bread and pain au chocolat for the morning. We soon found the best chocolate-chip cookies ever, at Heurtier on Rue de la Verrerie. Inevitably, our path home would detour past its door.
But once we were in our flat, it was impossible to stay put. Paris called from behind our tall windows. Paris and ice skating. Two temporary ice-skating rinks had been set up in front of the Hôtel de Ville, mere blocks away. Skates rented for $7.35, and the rinks were free for as long as you wanted, with a big one for accomplished skaters and a small one for beginners, equipped with little sleds to lean on. Fiona and Danny went night after night, sometimes with Katie, sometimes with us, and taught themselves to skate. Having my Southern California children learn to ice skate in Paris was pretty much all the Christmas present I needed.
We also had the Marais to explore, so we made certain to set aside a few days to wallow in our new neighborhood, which with its medieval streets and museums was a destination in itself. Across the street was one of the city's more popular cafes -- le Loir dans la Théière (the Dormouse in the Teapot). With its Alice in Wonderland décor, it was inviting, yet so crowded that days passed before we could actually get in.
Finally, a word about the Eiffel Tower. No matter how clichéd a symbol it has become, there's nothing like seeing it in person. We visited it on our second day, at night, stopping at a small, sweet carousel on the northeastern corner of the mall in front of it.
When we reached the base, the wait was only about 20 minutes, but we decided to save the trip up for Christmas Day, which turned out to be a mistake. On Christmas, the clouds were so low that the tower disappeared halfway up, and after Christmas the lines were impossible. We never did go up the Eiffel Tower that trip, which the kids regret, but I don't.
Because now we have an ideal reason to go back.
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