Despite all-but confirming it to memory, I glanced once more at the message on my screen as the Eurostar, the high-speed train from London, docked in Paris’ Gare du Nord station. “I have managed to get all days off while you are here,” my doppelganger had written. “Did I mention how excited I am! Feel like a kid about to meet her pen pal for the first time … Even have the butterflies!”
I thought I was unique until Hillary Nangle (HN2) found me on Facebook. “I’ve been looking for another Hillary Nangle for a while,” she’d messaged, noting that she spelled Hillary with two Ls, where as I do so with only one. “If I must have a double, France is a nice place to have one!” I’d replied. Not only did HN2 live in Paris, France, but also she was a chef at Lenotre, the renowned culinary company founded by French chef Gaston Lenotre. Ooh-la-la! It was as if I’d won the Facebook lottery.
Show me the City of Light
Our galaxies collided in early March. I was dubbing around on the Rail Europe website, researching an upcoming rail trip through England, Scotland, and Wales, when I had one of those V8 moments: I could add-on a few days and take the high-speed Eurostar from London’s St. Pancras station to Paris’ Gard du Nord. “Ready to show me Paris, cybersis?” I messaged. “Love LOVE LOVE the idea!” she replied, setting our rendezvous in motion.
And now, here I was, anxiously anticipating meeting my Facebook double. When I’d asked how we would find each other in the busy station, she’d texted: “Did I mention I’m 6 feet tall? … And like to wear heels? I’ll be the one sticking out of the crowd … Literally!” As promised, she was front and center on the train platform, simultaneously waving and snapping pics with her iPhone. Within minutes any apprehensions I had about spending three days touring Paris with a semi-stranger vanished. From the minute I stepped off the train at 10:47 on a Saturday morning until I departed at 4:13 on Monday afternoon, we didn’t stop laughing or, it seemed, eating.
I’d found a reasonably priced hotel right around the corner from HN2’s apartment in the 7th arrondissement or neighborhood. My en-suite room at the Hôtel du Palais Bourbon was barely wide enough for a single bed, but the rate included Wi-fi and a continental breakfast; sold!
Over coffee at a nearby café with views of the gold dome of Les Invalides, HN2 shared her plans for my Paris binge. We strolled to the Metro station, and she gestured to the Eiffel Tower: “That’s my girlfriend. She’s always there, and at night she winks at me.”
And the food frenzy begins
When touring Paris with a chef, one expects to eat well. And we did, beginning with lunch at Comme A Savonnieres, a cozy bistro in St. Germaine des Pres. This was no tourist spot. We were the only ones speaking English, the blackboard menu provided no translations, and the décor—stone walls, red banquettes, and exposed beams—was textbook bistro. HN2 had taken me to the inner circle, one of those places Paris chefs whisper about to each other. Chef/owner Valentin Roulière, the son of a Loire Valley butcher, prepares authentic French dishes. We ordered wine, savored the amuse-bouche, then indulged in a leisurely three-course meal that ended with a to-die-for thin-crust pear tart topped with caramel and salted butter ice cream.
As we waddled out and through the neighborhood, HN2 introduced me to scarves. “Every French woman is born knowing how to wear them,” she said, toying with the one draped artfully around her neck. Glancing around, I realized I was one of the few women without one. It probably marked me as a tourist, I thought, eyeing a display. So did my rudimentary French. I lamented about my grammar skills. “Oh French is easy,” HN2 quipped. “I figure that because I’m female, everything is female, unless I don’t like it, than it’s masculine.”
We passed a storefront with a line extending out the door and down the sidewalk. “Pierre Hermé makes some of the best macarons in Paris,” HN2 explained. I cocked an eyebrow, anticipating her take on light-as-air confection that was not to be confused with chewy coconut macaroons. Macarons comprise almond meringue cookies sandwiching a flavored ganoche filling. They are to France what cupcakes are to the states, and Parisians are gaga over them. Too full to even consider sampling one, we pressed on to Eglise Saint Suplice, a flamboyant Baroque cathedral where the Marquis de Sade was christened and Victor Hugo was wed. It earned contemporary fame in The Da Vinci Code. Interior eye candy includes frescoes by Eugene Delacroix, a 6,588-pipe organ, and a meridian line designed to predict the date of Easter each year.
Sunday morning we hit the ground running, determined to cram as much of Paris as possible into my sole 24-hour day, without sacrificing experiencing the city on what was the first day of warm, sunny, dry weather. Paris in the spring? I’ll take it! We began with the Rodin Museum, located less than a block from my hotel. Since it was the first Sunday of the month, admission to the Rodin Museum, like most museums in the city, was free. It was crowded, but not impossibly so.
Inside and throughout gardens surrounding the early 20th-century chateau-style mansion are nearly 300 sculptures and paintings by Rodin. We ogled The Kiss, peered into The Gates of Hell, marveled at the Marble Gallery, and pondered The Thinker. I tasted my first authentic macarons at the museum’s café. We split a selection of flavors. One taste, and I understood the love. “Wait until you taste those from Lenôtre,” HN2 said. “They are among, if not the best, in Paris.”
Next stop: The Cluny, or National Museum of the Middle Ages, a treasure of Medieval artifacts and artwork housed in a 15-century Gothic mansion built atop the ruins of Roman Baths. We raced through exhibits, spending the most time at HN2’s favorite, The Lady and the Unicorn, a six-panel tapestry woven in Flanders between 1485 and 1500.
We whiled away the waning afternoon hours strolling in the Latin Quarter. Students, lovers, and families lounged and picnicked on the banks of the Seine. We jockeyed for position to snap pics of Notre Dame; stared back at Parisians of all stripes, who watched us while seated at outdoor café tables and sipping café au laits; and wandered narrow streets lined with cafes and shops.
Then we ate again, ducking into L’auberge du Moulin for escargot, a ham-and-cheese crepe, and raclette with a charcuterie plate. More walking, more wandering, more wine, and then HN2 realized that if we hurried, we could make it a bridge over the Seine before her girlfriend, Eiffel, did her hourly flash dance, an entrancing sight in the cool and gentle darkness of an early spring night.
It would have been a sin to leave Paris without tasting the macarons at Lenôtre, so I purchased one for a sample, then a bag to nibble later. We spent our final morning strolling the Champs Élysées, stopping into the Lenôtre center, where HN2 occasionally teaches at both the professional and amateur schools. Our timing was perfect, as I was able to meet one of her mentors, Philippe Gobet, Master Chef of France (M.O.F) and director of Ecole Lenôtre.
We ended our visit with traditional Breton-style crepes at the Crêperie du Manoir Breton. Made with buckwheat flour, Breton-style crepes have a dense texture and an earthy, nutty flavor. Instead of being wrapped around a filling, they’re served flat, with the edges folded over the ingredients and often topped with a fried egg. Hard cider is the usual accompaniment. After savoring one filled with ham, Gruyère, and egg, we gilded our Paris binge and celebrated our cyber-sisterdom by splitting a chocolate one.
“I think we need to search Facebook for Hilaria Nangli, a winemaker with a vineyard in Tuscany,” HN2 mused. “Ciao!” I replied enthusiastically, and headed for my train.
If You Go:
The Eurostar, which reaches speeds of up to 186 miles per hour, travels through the Chunnel, connecting London with Paris is just over two hours. Be especially wary around the Gare du Nord station, as pick-pocketers are plentiful.
Many museums in Paris are free on the first Sunday of the month. At other times, the best deal is the Paris Museum Pass, valid at more than 60 museums and monuments in Greater Paris; two-day, four-day, and six-day passes are available.
Passes for the Paris Metro (http://parismetro), valid for unlimited use of the Metro and buses, are sold in one-, three-, and five-day options covering zones 1-3 or zones 1-5. Price ranges from $14.91 covering one day, zones 1-3, to $81.64, covering 5-days, zones 1-5.