There used to be two great bargains in Paris. A pair of not-so-secret traveler’s secrets to explore the city like a local.
The first deal was the utterly free, 360-degree view of the City of Lights from the rooftop of a department store. You read that right: a department store. La Samaritaine was just across the Pont Neuf from the Ile de la Cite´. After a visit to Notre-Dame Cathedral, you could stroll across the “new bridge” (which probably should have been renamed centuries ago, since, as a matter of fact, it is the oldest bridge over the river Seine, dedicated in 1607), walk through the entrance doors of this central Paris department store, sashay past women’s dresses and men’s sportswear, take the elevator up to its highest point, then climb a set of narrow stairs to the roof. Once there, all of Paris lay before you and around you. On top of the demi-wall surrounding the terrace, someone had, years before, installed a panoramic series of photographs with landmarks identified to enhance your viewing delight.
La Samaritaine was always the first tip we offered to anyone planning a stop in Paris, even for a few hours. The rooftop view was a clever approach to orient yourself and plot a strategy before setting out on a walking tour, or a brilliant way towards the end of your trip to marvel at where you had already been. Sneak a bottle of wine up there, and voila! A toast to your genius discovery: the rooftop of a department store. From that spot you could possess Paris. Make it yours.
Alas, La Samaritaine closed about 10 years ago. This historic, architecturally super-cool, Art Déco building remains in place for now, while the owners, the courts, and the neighbors brawl over its future. You will just have to take my word for it: in person, the view was wondrous. Un instant of silence for La Samaritaine, please.
On to the the second great bargain in Paris: the cup of café.
Don’t get me wrong, a divine steaming cup of café au lait in the morning or a shot of espresso to rouse yourself after lunch is not cheap in Paris—it’s going to set you back several euros, but you get something extra for those coins. That cup of Joe serves as the price of admission for a venture that is worth far more than roasted beans. You are renting a piece of real estate.
Select a location, and for the cost of a coffee you can set up at even the poshest sidewalk café in Paris for an hour or so and watch the world go by. Even on the Avenue des Champs-Élysées, that boulevard famous for upmarket shopping. Writers have known this forever. Tired travelers can take a load off those tootsies, sip the elixr, and people-watch until you feel alive again.
All that in a cup.
I was weaned on the sweet tea of a Texan grandmother; drinking coffee came later for me as I began the tightly-budgeted journeys with Brian. Paris was the first city where I realized the value in splurging on a mid-afternoon espresso. From that moment, coffee became intertwined in the fabric of travel.
Throughout Europe the lesson was learned by heart. Italy, Istanbul, Brugge in Belgium; all have wickedly good coffee and a culture of allowing you the space and time to enjoy it.
In the midst of a summer heat wave years ago in Nice, while seeking employment on the French Riviera, Brian and I stayed in a microscopic, rented room with a creaking fan, no air conditioning, and a shower stall so tiny its curtain clung to our private bits like an iron-on patch. Between job interviews and dissatisfying showers, we carried borrowed paperbacks downstairs to Lou Pitchoun, our local cafe on the square below. Every afternoon we ordered un espresso made from coffee that the cafe’s owner said he brought back from visits to his grandmother. We would settle in with David Sedaris’ Me Talk Pretty One Day or a random crime novel pilfered from the hotel lobby and endeavor to forget the lack of work, our dwindling money cache, and the rivulets of perspiration ceaselessly flowing.
Lou Pitchoun means ‘little one’ in Provençale French. In our naiveté, we thought for a few weeks that it was the owner’s name. ‘Lou’ spoke French, English, Russian, German, and Italian to his customers, and communicated with a smile and gestures when one of those languages wasn’t effective. He greeted returning guests with arms extended; each of us was certain we were his favorite. One afternoon I asked why his café was the best I’d tasted in France. Lou scrutinized my face, his balding head cocked to the left. Cautious, he surveyed the square for eavesdroppers before lowering his voice, then whispered, “It’s Italian.” Lou’s grandmother lived over the border! He swore us to secrecy and treated us to croissants filled with dreams and the darkest chocolate, baked by his wife in the early morning hours. All these years later, I still judge coffee by comparing it to what we drank that summer in Nice. “It’s no Lou Pitchoun,” is my version of meh, it’s alright.
I became a disciple of local coffee specialties around the world. Sweating in the 105 sultry degrees of a Cartagena, Colombia August afternoon, I have gulped tinto; fiery-hot shots of sweet espresso delivered in tiny plastic cups, that you are compelled to knock back swiftly to avoid burned fingers. 105 degrees feels pretty cool after drinking that. In Bali, it was kopi luwak a specialty made from coffee berries that have been eaten by civets, excreted, collected and roasted. It’s expensive, but honestly tastes pretty bad, even taking into account its origin. Turkish coffee is finely ground and unfiltered, leaving sludge in your cup which takes getting used to, but when you’re visiting a city as stunning as Istanbul, it’s worth a try. Anyway, if I tallied up all of the time spent drinking coffee in cafés around the world, it comes to a fair stretch. I don’t consider that time wasted, but hours well-spent studying the cultures and the people. Eavesdropping at cafés is a bonus; one of my favorite travel activities.
Coffee not your cup of whatever? The rule applies for tea, wine, whiskey, and umbrella drinks, too. Your purchase qualifies as your ticket to sit. Be sure to know the tipping guidelines for the spot you are visiting.
Do you know of any other free or inexpensive ways to enjoy Paris, or is there a favorite café swirling in your memory? Leave a comment or let me know via SJOD’s social media ports: FB, twitter or instagram (links below). And if you find yourself passing through Nice, look for Lou; do me a favor: say “Bonjour”, and find out his real name. I recommend the pan au chocolate.